As a concept, trust brings with it a host of definitions, feelings, beliefs, actions, and baggage. Some think of it as a noun—something you "have"; others a verb—something you "make"; and others as both. Plus, there are different types of trust and numerous examples of betrayed trust. We use the word freely, often meaning very different things.
Some people herald the merits of trust, believing it's as essential as motherhood or apple pie, as if not trusting is a bad thing and trusting a good one. But, that's not the case. Like the paperweight on my desk which reads, "Life isn't always black and white," the same applies to trust. To effectively operate with trust, you must understand its boundaries.
Bottom line? Trust is not always a good thing. It's not inherently good to trust or bad not to. It's how, when, why, and to whom it's given that determines the positive or negative impact of trust. Here are three situations when it is not inherently good to trust:
1. When the outcome matters more than the relationship. Sometimes outcome must be the priority. When President Reagan first used the now popularized phrase, "trust but verify," he referred to information reliability and increased transparency related to nuclear arsenals during the Cold War. Situations with life or death implications, high safety elements, or critical impact ramifications require an outcome critical approach, where control and verification behaviors often trump concepts typically associated with trust.
2. When you operate with trust as a light switch. Ever hear someone say, "I either trust you or I don't," as if there's a trust-light-switch that's either on or off? To them, trust is an all-or-nothing proposition. That's not the kind of trust you want at work. While unconditional love is a positive, unconditional trust isn't. Authentic trust, the kind you need for work relationships, has conditions, boundaries, and limits. One condition is competence. People need to be able to do, or be capable of doing, what you need them to do before trust is given. I may trust you to handle this problem in this situation, but not in every situation. Trust is conditional and situational, not a blank check.
3. When you fail to consider the risks. Knowing when and how to give trust is a developed skill requiring consideration, experience, and judgment. Those who operate with authentic trust don't tune out their doubts or ignore the past. They use them to spark thinking, asking questions like: "How important is this project or issue? What's at stake for me; for the other person? What safety nets are in place? What level of trust could I give as a first step?" Building authentic trust is an ongoing process; it's trust with eyes-wide-open.
Trust building involves requirements, limits, conditions, and accountabilities. Those who regularly receive the dividends trust brings—from greater profitability, collaboration, and customer service to higher engagement, productivity and innovation—also understand that learning how to trust is more of a challenge than whom to trust.
More tips for increasing trust in your work group:
You'll find five trust essentials in my latest book: Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation (Career Press, 2014).