The Dark Side Of Trust

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about trust. Trust is widely assumed to be a necessary ingredient for effective organizations and effective leadership. But what do we really mean by the idea of trust? Might there be hidden downsides to the value we place on trust?

What Do We Mean By Trust?

First, since trust is one of those loaded words that means many things to many people, let’s unpack how it is used. When I say, “I trust you,” there are usually a few dimensions embedded in that statement:

Benevolent intention
I believe you are going to act in my best interests, therefore I don’t have to question or monitor your actions.

I believe you intend to do what you say you’re going to do.

I believe you are capable of doing what you say you are going to do.


What’s Wrong With That?

I have no quarrel with benevolent intention, sincerity, and capability. But here are some of the sub-texts I observe in conversations where the idea of “trust” is invoked.

Dependency On The Trusted Person
You should know what I want or need without my having to say so. If you don’t, then you can’t be trusted.

Untested Inferences About Motive
If you didn’t do what I wanted you to do, it’s because you willfully misled me.

Untested Assumptions That Others See And Value Things As You Do
Your picture of how “fair treatment” or “respect” should be manifested is the same as my picture.

Relinquishing Of Personal Choice
If I trust you, then I give up my judgment to you. I don’t have to decide what is “right” because you will tell me what it is, or do it for me.

Demand for Autonomy
You shouldn’t question my actions. If you question me, it means you don’t trust me.

Manipulation Of The Trusting Person
If you don’t trust me – if you question my actions – I will withdraw my esteem from you.


What’s The Alternative?

We are interdependent. We can’t get far without relying on people. We can’t monitor every single thing others do that has an effect on us. We don’t want to live in a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog jungle. Is there an alternative to the scenario I painted above?

The philosophers Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores have used the term “authentic trust” to describe trust that is based on making and honoring commitments (as opposed to “blind trust” which involves childlike dependency).  I like the idea of authentic trust, and here are some of my key criteria for creating it:

  • Take responsibility for identifying your own interests and negotiate to get them met.
  • Don’t assume that others know what you value, or are able and willing to provide it, until you have the conversation.
  • Be explicit about what your expectations of others look like. What does “respect” and “fairness” mean to you?
  • Welcome others’ questions about how and when you are going to accomplish something.
  • Don’t get offended when one of your peers expresses an interest in how and what you are doing things in your group that might affect his/her group.
  • If you don’t think you can deliver something that someone expected, let them know and take responsibility for the effects this may have.
  • Don’t say you’ll do something unless you really intend to do it.


What do you think? What examples of authentic trust have you seen? I’d love to hear from you.


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