Beware of the potential harms of trust: 5 safeguards

While “trust” sounds like it would be an inherently good thing to have between two people or in a team, that is not always the case. Depending on what “trust” means to you, it can also be harmful at times.

While it may not at first seem pertinent, driving in traffic can be a helpful metaphor for understanding different definitions of trust in the workplace.

A couple of years ago, I was rear-ended at a stoplight. I got very angry and leaped out of the car to confront the “reckless, inept” driver who hit me only to meet a tearful woman apologetic over the accident. She told me she had come from a medical appointment in which she had received bad news. Learning this, I was embarrassed at my impulsive road rage.

In the moment of stress, I leaped to flawed conclusions about the inherent reliability or trustworthiness of the other driver. Under stress or pressure, there is a strong tendency to treat trust as due to a personal trait of trustworthiness and make global, black or white judgments.

In the workplace, for example, when agreements appear broken, or we feel treated poorly we might leap to a global, negative judgment and tell a person “You are not trustworthy” or “I don’t trust you.” Or, this judgment might lead us to withdraw from communication. Either way, both actions can be experienced as disrespectful and provoke defensiveness, which harms collaboration.

In contrast, trust becomes less black or white if we see outcomes in specific situations as arising from complex, interacting factors. Breakdowns and mistakes are inevitable even when people are well-intentioned and skilled. From this perspective, trust is a state which is always changing and requires constant attention and adjustments from everyone involved to build and sustain.

In both driving and in the workplace, we are choosing to make ourselves vulnerable to the actions of others. There is no absolute, risk-free trustworthiness. In driving, to help deal with the risks, there are safeguards or ground rules to guide behavior (e.g., “stop when the light is red”). In the workplace, all too frequently, ground rules for work agreements are not clear or are confused over time by competing demands and priorities.

Here are five ground rules or safeguards that approach trust as a constantly changing state which must be jointly managed. While not meant to be comprehensive, this guidance serves as a foundation for strengthening team collaboration over time.

  1. Agree to assume everyone has good intentions.
  2. For each task, define shared goals, roles, priorities, and timelines — that is, establish clarity about what is being agreed to and who will do what by when.
  3. Define norms for communication, feedback, and decision making. For example, it is crucial that different views and troublesome issues are actively elicited and explored rather than debated or avoided. Feedback should emphasize referring to specific behaviors in specific situations as opposed to global judgments.
  4. Assure regular check-in times to see how things are going. Assume that misalignment, miscommunication, and mistakes will occur.
  5. Leaders need to assure clarity and consistent application of norms and activate performance intervention as appropriate when someone repeatedly will not follow them.

It is curious that some influential books on leadership and teamwork do not list the word “trust” in the index or as a major topic heading. Also, I have seen mission and values statements of highly successful organizations which do not include the word or mention it only very briefly. In these cases, terms such as fairness, respect, honesty, integrity, and psychological safety are used which have much overlap and interdependency with trust. The five ground rules for trust also help in building all of these qualities of relationship.

Working with trust is challenging because, in response to stress and pressure, we may cause harm by leaping to flawed conclusions about the personal trait of trustworthiness in others. In fact, trust is a constantly changing state dependent on the quality of safeguards or ground rules we mutually negotiate with others to manage risk.

Neil Baker is a physician and founder, Neil Baker Consulting and Coaching.

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