Can I trust you?

John Wenger
June 26, 2014

Original text at

All over the place, polls and surveys point to continuing low levels of trust in the people and institutions with whom we used to invest our confidence. Politicians and their parties, bankers and the financial sector, clerics and organised religions, all struggling to convince us they are worthy of our trust.

To me, these polls illustrate the erosion of trust in those who purport to lead us and, I suspect, an erosion of faith in the systems that puts those leaders there. It's not just a crisis of democracy, it's a much wider crisis of leadership: in government, in business, in churches. The expenses scandal in the UK. Widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests and covered up by bishops. Credit ratings agencies giving the thumbs up to banking systems at the heart of the global financial crisis. Bankers gifting themselves ever larger bonuses with the taxpayer money that bailed them out. Politicians and police exposed as bed-fellows with News International as the cruel depths of their phone hacking emerged. So-called "democratic" world leaders sitting close-lipped on genuinely popular uprisings unless it suits them. In response, first the indignados and then the occupy movements around the world mobilised in an effort to give voice to their myriad frustrations with "the system" because they see little hope or joy in working within the systems which already exist, seen as corrupt, untrustworthy and anti-democratic. The faith that people have lost is not simply in the people who purport to lead; it is in the actual systems.

In this article, "America is Better Than This," Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas comments on the spectacle of the US Congress classifying pizza sauce as a vegetable in deference to the fast food lobby, who wish to continue serving it to America's schoolchildren. Loomis is quoted in the article as saying, "…if they can't get it right on pizza sauce, how can they do something on the deficit, or healthcare?" Politics has, for many folks, been reduced to a source of entertainment and farce, rather than a channel through which to effect real change in our societies. "Election promise" has long become a byword for mendacity. Loomis has a good point: if we can't trust those in positions of leadership to act with integrity and common sense on small matters, how on Earth can we trust them with larger concerns?

In our quest for authentic leadership, those who aspire to lead or purport to lead need to understand that the issue is not "the issues"; the issue is "trust". I don't care if you have a solid understanding of economics or IT; my real question is "Can I trust you to lead?" Just as importantly, can I trust a system that put you there? If the system continually puts people in positions of power who abuse it, many are asking, isn't it time we had a new system? This is the promised land that many among us have been dreaming of. The "something new" that seems to be emerging, the new paradigm of leadership, is not one of hierarchies or command and control. It is one of networks, relationships and action. It is of "leader-full" systems, rather than leaders of hierarchies. Old style leaders and leadership systems are fast becoming irrelevant before our very eyes. Leadership in the 21st century is going to be more about relationships and influence, interconnectedness and networks, trust and authenticity. Leadership, as a phenomenon, will emerge from the dynamic between people, and this may not necessarily conform to an organisational hierarchy. Many old-style thinkers look at the occupy movements and scratch their heads because they genuinely can't make sense of it: "Where are their leaders?" "What are their demands?" They don't get that this new paradigm will be populated by "leader-full" networks, empowering themselves to take action rather than via "representatives".

These leader-full networks will be populated by people exercising authentic leadership: being themselves; bringing forward their own sets of knowledge and capabilities; exercising their own brand of action. Central to this will be engendering trust throughout the network, maintaining good relationships and purposeful influence. It won't happen because you tell me that I can trust you. It will happen because you behave in a trustworthy manner. Similarly, I know I will gain your trust by approaching you and others in ways which are deserving of that trust. It's a mutual thing, not the old-style thing of "me at the bottom of the hierarchy trusting you at the top".

A new manifesto of trust

Want me to trust you? Be a man (or woman) of your word; not a man (or woman) of words. Words don't cut it. I've been lied to too many times. I want to see trustworthy action. Let's instigate a manifesto of trust. It could say something like this:

While those in our political classes will try to garner trust simply by saying, "You can trust me," true leaders know that trust follows trustworthy behaviour. That's it really. In any election campaign, all the stuff about the economy, education or health is important, but as we listen to election messages, the key thing to consider is, "Can I actually trust you? How can I believe what you are telling me (about the economy, education and health)?" When I hear the expression, "Let me be really clear about the facts," I know that what follows is more likely to be distortions. So let's not continue to rely on command-and-control systems that set people up in positions of trust without having earned it.

In the realm of customer service, trust doesn't come because you've won some customer care award or you have the biggest share of the market. It comes because when I interact with you, I feel that you are really listening to me and giving me your undivided attention. I get the unshakable sense that you are taking my concerns seriously and that you are not following some sort of customer service script. I trust you when you treat me like an intelligent human being and don't patronise me with your "Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?" attitude. At the same time, help me to understand, rather than blind me with your jargon. I might trust you if I felt you weren't just using language to pull the wool over my eyes.

In the realm of the networked workplace, I will trust you when I feel that you value my contributions and that you encourage others to do the same. I will trust you when you are constant. A psychologist friend of mine had a mantra which went, "The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour." While I don't agree with that entirely , there is some truth in it. My trust in you will build over time, when you are repeatedly and consistently authentic and trustWORTHY. We will not necessarily gain trust in each other simply because we have played some simplistic "trust games" during our one and only staff training day.

Let's also resist the urge to get indignant. Perhaps this is our default response: "How DARE you! It sounds as if you don't trust me." Rather than throw it all back onto me, as if my lack of trust in you is somehow an indication of a defect in me, why not go away and think about what it is about your actions that might somehow engender mistrust. If you have a track record of not following through with commitments, then my mistrust is probably well-placed.

I'll close with a note about cynics, because in the face of broken trust, it is easy to become cynical about people. Cynicism has, however, taken on a negative connotation in modern society, where it was once thought to be a virtue. Cynics were of an ancient Greek school of philosophy. The example of the Cynic's life (and the use of the Cynic's biting satire) would dig up and expose the pretensions which lay at the root of everyday conventions. Cynicism offered people the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. The ideal Cynic would evangelise; as the watchdog of humanity, it was their job to hound people about the error of their ways. (Wikipedia entry on Cynicism)

In these mendacious times, in a changing world where trust is becoming the chief currency, nothing wrong with a little healthy cynicism, eh?