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Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast Android | RSS
Podcast: EmbedSubscribe to TrustMatters, The Podcast Android | RSS
The following is a guest blogpost by Rick Lepsinger of OnPoint Consulting. You can connect with Rick directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several years ago, tech giant Google set out on an ambitious research quest to build the perfect team. The project examined a host of factors, including team composition, management style, and task management, poring through a mountain of quantitative and qualitative data over the course of several years to identify what factors made teams successful. When the study concluded, the final results were actually quite simple.
What mattered most to a team’s success wasn’t how it was put together, how it carried out its tasks, or how quickly it worked. Instead, it came down to a single word:
Teams in which members trusted one another were far more likely to take risks, ask questions, admit mistakes, and offer new ideas than teams with low levels of trust. Intuitively, this should not have come as a surprise. People feel more secure when they trust those around them, which allows them to focus their energy on the tasks at hand rather than constantly assessing where they stand with others.
In today’s team-driven business world, building a culture based on trust is one of the most important responsibilities facing leaders in all types of organizations. While companies may go to great lengths to establish a culture that encourages trust, it falls upon individual leaders to follow through with those intentions and bring that level of trust to their teams.
In order to build trust strong enough to endure, leaders must first understand the essential elements of trust and recognize how they relate to one another. One way to think about the essential elements is to use the Trust Equation, as put forth in the book The Trusted Advisor.
It’s difficult for a leader to build trust if they don’t have a proven track record of achieving results and demonstrating their expertise. Team members need to see their leader as a credible source of authority and information. If they don’t, they may second-guess decisions or become disengaged from the rest of the team.
Establishing credibility takes time and effort. Team members often need to see that someone knows what they’re talking about before they can place their trust in them. Leaders can, however, take a number of actions in their day-to-day dealings to improve their credibility. Avoiding exaggerations, answering direct questions with direct answers, and offering viable solutions to problems will help demonstrate to team members that they’re committed to being truthful and focusing on measurable results.
The best path to earning credibility is through building relationships with team members over time. Establishing a reputation for honesty by encouraging transparency and admitting when they don’t know something allows leaders to show they’re committed to the team’s success and not out to bolster their own reputations.
Team members need to trust that leaders stand behind what they say and do. They should not selectively disclose information or only emphasize positives while downplaying negatives. Should leaders lose that reputation for truthfulness, they run the risk of being seen as self-serving, manipulative, or unconcerned for their team’s success.
If leaders need credibility coming into a team environment, they must show that people can count on them to follow through on their word if they want to succeed in the long term. Unreliable leaders who make big promises but seldom act on them will quickly lose whatever trust they’ve built. Team members need to know that their leader will be there for them and will keep whatever promises they’ve made.
While it’s easy to think of reliability only in terms of tasks and official responsibilities, it can extend to interpersonal dealings as well. A leader who always does their job can still lose the team’s trust if they make a habit of brushing off commitments and not following through on smaller issues on a regular basis.
Reliability needs to be established over time, but it can often go unnoticed if leaders don’t make the work they’re doing visible to others. Regular communication and transparency are extremely valuable in building a reputation for reliability. Clarifying roles within the team also helps to establish accountability by making it clear who is responsible for which tasks.
By this point, it should be clear that building trust is about establishing relationships. Intimacy, or the act of communicating and empathizing with others on a personal level, is a crucial part of this process. Regardless of their position within an organization, people want to know that they (and their work) are valued. Leaders must find ways to create connections with their team members that allow them to provide the professional and emotional support they need.
Team members also need to trust leaders to be discreet with the information and issues they share with them. This is particularly important for conflict resolution and internal feedback. If employees don’t trust leaders to show consideration in handling that information, they’ll be less likely to share it in the first place, which can only make existing problems worse over time.
Building healthy intimacy in a team environment requires a great deal of effort. Team-building activities that allow people to get to know one another outside the context of work are an effective method for deepening interpersonal relationships. Leaders can also set aside time to talk to team members regularly, allowing them to voice concerns or share their thoughts. This accessibility gives leaders an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and address issues before they become problematic.
Setting up internal community pages, social media groups, or message boards can help employees connect with one another in ways that go beyond their work responsibilities. Building these connections makes it easier for them to trust one another in difficult times because they can see what they have in common.
Good leadership often requires an individual to put the interests of others first. Leaders therefore need to be aware of whose interests are motivating their decisions and actions. A leader who constantly does things to make themselves look good, such as taking credit for the team’s work or asserting themselves purely to show off their expertise, will very quickly erode whatever trust they’ve built with their team.
Self-orientation can also impact the perception of credibility and reliability. A manager with extensive knowledge and a proven track record for success might normally be seen as credible, but if their actions suggest that they care more about furthering themselves at the expense of others, they will find it difficult to leverage that experience with their teams. This kind of self-serving behavior also makes it harder for people to see them as reliable. It’s difficult to count on someone who has a reputation for only being out for themselves.
Anyone in a leadership position is going to have their actions closely scrutinized. Leaders must be sure to take their team members into consideration whenever they make decisions. Here again, communication is vital. People are better able to accept decisions when they know their opinions or concerns were genuinely heard and considered.
Identifying Trust Issues
As Tolstoy famously observed, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same can be applied to successful teams and failing teams, especially when it comes to trust. Effective teams may be structured differently, but they all exhibit the same fundamental elements of trust. Ineffective or dysfunctional teams, however, can take a number of forms, depending upon the root causes of distrust.
Many factors can make it difficult to establish trust or undermine it over time. One of the biggest warning signs of trust issues is deflection of responsibility. When no one accepts accountability for their actions, they’re sending a message that they don’t care about anyone but themselves. While this is bad enough from team members, it is absolutely toxic when the leader refuses to take responsibility because it makes trust almost impossible to establish.
Dysfunctional teams might also be riven by harmful gossip and backstabbing. Without proper intimacy and self-orientation, team members assume the worst from one another and question the intentions behind every action and behavior. Even worse, they rarely direct their criticisms at the person they’re upset with, instead sharing their negative thoughts with coworkers and undermining whatever sense of camaraderie might have existed on the team. When leaders speak ill of someone, other team members begin to wonder what might be said about them when they’re not around.
Healthy, effective teams thrive on interpersonal interactions. When team members stop relating to one another on a personal level, keeping all conversations to “strictly business,” deeper trust issues might well be at work. Effective communication requires a level of comfort. If team members aren’t comfortable communicating with each other, then they’re also likely to find it difficult working together in general. When leaders become distant and aloof, employees may begin to question their intentions or true goals.
While healthy teams celebrate wins as a group, dysfunctional teams often break down into a collection of individuals bent on pursuing their own goals. Rather than focusing on how to make the team succeed, a team member might instead focus on how to make themselves look good regardless of the team’s outcome. Leaders who become caught up in pursuing their own goals will quickly lose their team’s trust. Even worse, this behavior could very well encourage people to “save themselves” by focusing on avoiding responsibility for the team’s failures.
Establishing trust is one of the most vital tasks facing any leader in a team environment. While the talent of individual team members is obviously important, much of that talent will go to waste if the team is rendered dysfunctional by a lack of trust. Leaders must find effective strategies that leverage their credibility and reliability to facilitate better, more authentic communication. By establishing closer connections based on intimacy and proper self-orientation, leaders can avoid the damaging effects of losing trust within their teams.
Being right is vastly overrated.
Now, that doesn’t mean that lying is a good strategy. What it does mean is that in the business world, we all too easily conflate trust with credibility, and credibility with expertise.
You don’t have to look too far to find big-name sales trainers and gurus who insist that it is expertise and insights that drive sales success and trust.
I first heard this mantra back in the 70s (and if I were older, I’m sure I’d know of earlier instances).
Well, here’s some truth. People don’t trust you just because you’re smart. And they definitely don’t trust you because you’re a smart-aleck.
In fact, smart is not even a necessary condition for trust – much less a sufficient condition. Further, the role of expertise and insight doesn’t come temporally first in selling – it plays a role in marketing, and then later a role nearer the middle of the sales process.
Credibility, insight, expertise, smarts – all these things do have a role. It’s just not what you may think.
Let me explain a bit further…
I long ago attended a sales call with my boss. When asked by the client, “What experience do you have doing this [narrowly defined] kind of work?” he shocked me by saying, “None that I can think of; what else would be useful for us to talk about?”
How is it that we come to influence other people’s ideas? How do we more effectively get others to take our advice? How do we sell more successfully?
The overwhelming answer in the corporate world seems to be, “By getting people to see that we have the right insights and answers.” But that response is very often wrong.
“Being right” turns out to be vastly overrated. Sometimes, even an admission of ignorance is actually a better strategy.
Misconceptions About Trust – How to Gain Credibility
Most of us think something along these lines: “They’ll take my advice (or buy from me, or be persuaded by me) if they think I’m credible. They’ll think I’m credible if I look smart, have great ideas, and have experience. Therefore I’ll tell them about myself, my bright ideas, and my track record at being smart.”
Clients contribute to this subornation by asking us to talk about precisely that (not because they care about the answer, but because they just don’t know what else to ask and don’t want to take the risk of looking foolish themselves).
But credibility isn’t the only element driving trust. And experience and smarts aren’t the only ways to get credibility. Think of the arrogance implicit in saying “let me tell you why I’m the best” before the customer feels you even know their situation. (This is a description of 98 out of 100 cold call emails you get from email “marketers”).
For example, consider humility. Being willing to acknowledge obvious ignorance creates rather than destroys credibility. The ability to say, as my boss did, “I don’t know,” is an astonishing comment. It communicates ignorance, yes – but it also communicates radical honesty (who is about to doubt an admission of ignorance!).
- It communicates a sense of self-confidence (“I am secure enough in my worth and my value to admit exactly what I do and don’t know”).
- It communicates a clear customer-focus – it says, “You asked a good question, and you deserve a straight, no-spin-control answer. Here it is.”
- It communicates a focus on the long-term – it says, “If this particular piece of knowledge is key, then I may not win this job; but by being always transparent about what I do know, clients will always know they can trust what I say.”
By contrast, leading with smarts alone just says, “I am a database with a protein user interface.”
The Role of Truth
The point is not to adopt a profession of ignorance as a tactic. Nor is it to pursue ignorance as policy. It’s to tell the truth. Your credibility is not just a function of expertise: it’s a result of a complex set of calculations made by someone when they decide whether to believe and trust you when you say something.
Even if people believe you—credibility—that isn’t enough to get you trusted. They must also trust your motives, your understanding of their situation, and your ability to empathize—as they see it.
True credibility comes from letting people see you as you are—not as you would wish they would see you. Transparency trumps expertise. The more you insist on how much you know, the less we believe you: “the lady doth protest too much.” The more willing you are to honestly admit your limitations, the more we believe you. It’s a paradox thing.
No one expects an advisor or salesperson to be perfect—we just want to know where their biases or blind spots lie, whether they know their own biases – and whether they’re capable of admitting them.
That way we can make up our own minds about how much to trust them.
Letting our clients make that decision is, itself, a driver of trust.
Credibility is one piece of the bedrock of trust. If people doubt what you say, all else is called into doubt, including competence and good intentions. If others don’t believe what you tell them, they won’t take your advice, they won’t buy from you, they won’t speak well of you, they won’t refer you on to others, and they will generally make it harder for you to deal with them.
Being believed is pretty important stuff. The most obvious way to be believed, most people would say, is to be right about what you’re saying. Unfortunately, being right and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee. First, people have to be willing to hear you. And no one likes a wise guy show-off – if all you’ve got is a right answer, you’ve not got much.
While each of these may sound simple, there are eight distinct things you can do to improve the odds that people believe what you say. Are you firing on all eight cylinders?
1. Tell the truth. This is the obvious first point, of course – but it’s amazing how the concept gets watered down. For starters, telling the truth is not the same as just not lying. It requires saying something; you can’t tell the truth if you don’t speak it.
2. Tell the whole truth. Don’t be cutesie and technical. Don’t allow people to draw erroneous conclusions based on what you left out. By telling the whole truth, you show people that you have nothing to hide. (Most politicians continually flunk this point).
3. Don’t over-context the truth. The most believable way to say something is to be direct about it. Don’t muddy the issue with adjectives, excuses, mitigating circumstances, your preferred spin, and the like. We believe people who state the facts, and let us uncover the context for ourselves.
4. Freely confess ignorance. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, say, “I don’t know.” It’s one of the most credible things you can say. After all, technical knowledge can always be looked up; personal courage and integrity are in far shorter supply.
5. First, listen. Nothing makes people pay attention to you more than your having paid attention to them first. They will also be more generous in their interpretation of what you say, because you have shown them the grace and respect of carefully listening to them first. Reciprocity is big with human beings.
6. It’s not the words, it’s the intent. You could say, in a monotone voice, “I really care about the work you folks are doing here.” And you would be doubted. Or, you could listen, animatedly, leaning in, raising your eyebrows and bestowing the gift of your attention, saying nothing more than, “wow.” And people would believe that you care.
7. Use commonsense anchors. Most of us in business rely on cognitive tools: data, deductive logic, and references. They are not nearly as persuasive as we think. Focus instead more on metaphors, analogies, shared experiences, stories, song lyrics, movies, famous quotations. People are more inclined to believe something if it’s familiar, if it fits, or makes sense, within their world view.
8. Use the language of the other person. If they say “customer,” don’t you say “client.” And vice versa. If they don’t swear, don’t you dare. If they speak quietly one on one, adopt their style. That way, when you say something, they will not be distracted by your out-of-ordinary approach, and they will intuitively respect that you hear and understand them.
What’s not on this list? Several things, actually. Deductive logic. Powerpoint. Cool graphics. Spreadsheet backup. Testimonials and references. Qualifications and credentials.
It’s not that these factors aren’t important; they are. But they are frequently used as blunt instruments to qualify or reject. We’d all prefer to be rejected or disbelieved “for cause,” rather than for some feeling. And so we come up with rational reasons for saying no, and justifying yes. But the decision itself to believe you is far more likely driven by the more emotive factors listed above.
Dilbert on trust and lying:
Scott Adams nails it. With a sledgehammer, as usual. The pointy-haired boss is ethically clueless, and blatantly so.
We all get the joke, much the way we get the old George Burns line, “the most important thing in life is sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
But sometimes it’s worth deconstructing the obvious to see just what makes it tick. So at the risk of stepping on the laugh line, let’s have a go at it.
Lying and Credibility
The most obvious problem with lying is that it makes you wrong. Anyone who knows the truth then immediately knows, at a bare minimum, that you said something that is not the truth, aka wrong.
The shock to credibility extends even to denials. Think Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” or Clinton’s “I did not have sex…” or the granddaddy of them all, the apocryphal Lyndon Johnson story about getting an opponent to deny having had sexual relations with a pig. In each case, the denial forces us to consider the possibility of an alternate truth – and the damage is done.
But credibility is the least of it. There are two other corrosive aspects of lying: evasiveness, and motives.
Lying and Evasiveness
When you think someone is lying to you, you likely think, “Why is he saying that?” Evasive lying is rarely as direct as the Dilbert case; more often it shows up in white lies, lies of omission, or lies of deflection. “You know, you can’t really trust those damage reports anyway,” “I wouldn’t be too concerned about the service guarantee if I were you,” and so forth.
If the first response to a lie is to doubt that what is stated is the truth, then the second response is to wonder what the truth really is. And we sense evasiveness as we run down the list of alternate truths, each more negative than the last.
Lying and Motive
But the most damning aspect of lying is probably the doubt it casts on the liar’s motives. We move from “that’s not true!” to “I wonder what really is true,” to “why would he be saying such a thing?”
To doubt someone’s motives is to add an infinite loop to our concerns about the lie. First of all, motive goes beyond the lie, to the person telling the lie – who is now incontrovertibly a liar.
Second, the rarest of all motives for lying is an attempt to do a greater good for another. Despite frequent claims that “I did it for (the kids / the parents / justice), almost all motives for lying turn out to be self-serving at root. (Including the lies we tell ourselves about why we’re telling lies). Why would he do such a thing? Because there was something in it for him, that’s why! It’s almost always true.
And if people act toward us from selfish motives, then we know we have been treated as objects – as means to an end and not as ends in ourselves. This is unethical in the Kantian sense.
Worst of all, bad motives call everything else into question. “If he lied about this, then how can I know he was telling the truth about that? Or about anything else?” This is why perjury is a crime, and why casting doubt on someone’s character is a common way to counter their statements.
Recovering from Lies
We’ve all told lies. At least, everyone I know has. Okay, I have. We can often be forgiven, just as we can forgive others their lies to us. To forgive and to be forgiven, the liar must express recognition and contrition around the full extent of the lie, and then some.
This can be done more easily for the wounds of credibility and evasiveness. “I was wrong to do that, I know it, and I am sorry.” It is harder to forgive the part about motive, because it goes to something much deeper. How can someone be believed about changing their motives? How easily can you change your own?
Would you risk your company’s reputation in an attempt to save what amounts to 0.16% of your annual revenue?
The owners of the NFL franchises have spent decades building the league’s reputation as a trustworthy, venerable institution – with a lot of success. Now, literally in the blink of an eye, the NFL has risked its credibility for relative peanuts.
In case you haven’t heard, the NFL has locked its referees out because they didn’t want to switch their pension plan from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution model. A hill to die on? Not.
Referees missing calls isn’t quite news (insert your favorite blind ref joke here). Across all sports, poor decisions are made that affect the outcome of games. What makes the NFL’s referee lockout so newsworthy are the repeated bad calls the league has made.
The NFL made an initial, and forgivable, mistake by not standing by its refs. True, the NFL is a business, and it’s hard to overlook $16 million a year. But by not taking responsibility for their mistake, they are compounding the problem, letting it grow and sacrificing their reputation in the process.
When yesterday they unequivocally denied that a mistake was even made, they simply added further tension to an already stressed situation.
Time to Call an Audible
The NFL’s denial of the controversy is a classic example of institutional refusal to face facts confronting a failure of trust. The desire to cover up – from Watergate to Penn State – runs deep.
But this season is still young; there’s time to resolve the issue and begin to rebuild the lost trust. If the NFL acts humbly, admits its mistakes and ends the lockout, all can be forgotten in a matter of weeks or even days.
But the longer they refuse to admit the breach of trust, the more trust they’ll leave on the field.
It’s received wisdom by now that you should manage expectations. How could you argue with that? Nobody likes to be surprised on the downside. But as with many platitudes, the devil is in the details. And there are a few devils lurking out there in expectations-management land.
Always Exceeding Expectations
Exhibit 1 is the mantra to always under-promise and over-deliver, perhaps as a way to achieve customer delight. The problem is, if you consistently under-promise and over-deliver, you are – in an important sense – lying. You are deliberately telling your customer (or whomever) one thing, and then doing another. How else to describe that form of managing expectations?
The downside is that, over time, it destroys your credibility. Whether it’s stock analysts looking at your quarterly guidance, or employees expecting you to top last year’s ‘surprise’ holiday bonus, once you say one thing and do another, the only expectation you’ve ‘managed’ is the expectation that your future behavior will resemble what it was – an under-promise – not what you said it would be.
And so the party you’re trying to influence makes their own mental adjustment to counter-balance your expected over-delivery– negating your attempt at ‘management.’ Except that another degree of uncertainty is added on each end.
There’s no question that a good attitude helps with life. Measured optimism, a propensity to trust, a positive outlook – all these increase the odds of positive interactions with others. Whether you expect ill or good of another person, that’s probably what you’ll get.
But what if an entire generation is raised the Lake Wobegon way, believing they’re all above average? What if self-help affirmations are of dubious benefit because on some level we don’t believe what we’re trying to tell ourselves? What if corporate and political spin get so bad that they destroy our trust in the very institutions and people who are seeking to manage our expectations?
Attempts at managing attitude are utlmately seen as patronizing. Whether it’s “don’t get your hopes up,” or “you should feel really good about this,” we resent others doing our feeling for us. We want the right to determine our own reactions, therefore our own attitudes.
Managing Expectations the Right Way
It is true that bad surprises are not a good thing. It’s also true that expectations aligned with reality (or slightly more optimistic) are preferable to living in a fantasy world. The problem is not with the noun ‘expectations.’ It comes with the verb – it matters who does the ‘managing.’
I want to manage my own expectations. You can help me by telling me the truth. That means six things:
- Be transparent. Get way past just not lying to me. Tell me all the truth you have access to. Make it a policy to give me access to data-without-interpretation.
- Prove to me – over and over– that I can depend on you. Promise me lots of little deadlines and meet every one of them – precisely, on the money, not ‘over-performing.’ Do exactly what you said you would do.
- Trust me. Share things about yourself with me that I could misuse against you, take risks on me that allow me to over-perform. Because then I have a chance to prove to you how competent and trustworthy I am.
- Respect me. Give me the data and let me make up my own mind how I feel about it. Don’t spin me, don’t tell me how I should feel.
- Be straight with me. If you do see my expectations careening out of control, and you think I’m about to make a serious error, then pull me aside and tell me straight; don’t sugar-coat it.
- Hold me accountable. Call me on my bullshit; confront me when I fail to deliver on time; be forthright with me when I let you down. And let me know that you expect me to do the same.
The best way to manage my expectations is to treat me like an adult. That’s my truth anyway; what about you?
That may sound self-evident. But lying isn’t the only way to kill trust. It’s useful to review the bidding, in order to realize just how potent lying is.
Then too, there are green kryptonite and red kryptonite forms of lying.
Four Ways to Destroy Trust
Using the trust equation as a checklist suggests at least four generic ways to destroy someone’s trust in you:
- Develop an erratic track record. That leads to a reputation for being flakey, undependable, that you can’t be counted on. Soon enough you’re losing the big jobs, then the little ones. All because you’re unreliable.
- Abuse others’ confidences. Develop loose lips. Tell secrets. Make hay on inside information. Laugh at others’ misfortunes, or just be emotionally tone-deaf. The invitations will stop soon enough.
- Use others for your own ends. Do unto others before they do unto you. Always be closing. Find the competitive advantage at every turn. Don’t let your guard down, and don’t be a chump. It’s better to receive than to give.
- Put distance between yourself and the truth. There are white lies, bald-faced lies, lies of omission, half-truths, partial truths, packs of lies, and lies of convenience. They’re all kryptonite.
Which is the worst? It’s hardly a walk-away, but I say the last one–lying.
Cold, Flat-Out, Straight-up Lies
Robert Whipple told me of the experience of being lied to, to his face, with full eye contact. That degree of trust destruction is strong enough to take effect instantly. Let’s examine why.
Obviously, if someone lies to you, you can’t believe what they’ve told you. Which means the next thing they tell you has to be suspect as well. Being lied to immediately ruins the speaker’s credibility.
But that’s just a start. Lying also infects reliability. Because if you tell me you’ll do something, but you’ve lied to me before, then I don’t know if I can trust you’ll do what you’ve said you’ll do.
Lying also affects intimacy and confidences. If you’ve lied to me, your motives are suspect. I’m not about to share confidential information with someone who’s been dishonest with me about their motives.
Finally, that same issue of motives makes me profoundly suspicious of your intentions. We do not assume people have lied to us for our own good, but rather for their good. And we do not like that.
Green and Red Kryptonite Lies
As is well known, krytponite of all forms is debilitating or lethal to Superman, but red kryptonite is more harmful. To extend the metaphor, which is more lethal to trust: a bald-faced lie, or a series of veiled, half-truths? I suggest that the latter is worse.
A flat out lie has two elements of truth: transparency and completeness. It’s all out there, right away. When Shaggy sings It Wasn’t Me, it’s such an in-your-face lie you have to laugh. The band-aid is ripped off the scab all at once. If you trust after that, it’s entirely your own fault. That’s green kryptonite.
Then there’s the really bad stuff – red kryptonite lying.
Red kryptonite lying consists of half-truths, incomplete truths, truths not told at the right time. It is often justified on the grounds that it isn’t green kryptonite: “I didn’t actually say anything that wasn’t true.”
Red kryptonite lying is riddled with layers of bad faith. It leaves the receiver with nagging doubt. Why did he not tell me the whole truth? Why did she not bring this to my attention earlier? What about all the other questions this raises?
One trouble with red kryptonite truth is the nagging doubt it leaves you with – the lack of resolution about the issue at hand.
But perhaps the worst nagging doubt is about the nature of the liar himself. Is the liar incompetent? Or is he dishonest? Does the liar even know the difference? Finally – does the liar even know he is lying?
It is sometimes said that the best salespeople are those who can first sell themselves. Indeed, some high-selling salespeople have that ability; but I wouldn’t trust them.