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The Problem with a Trust-But-Verify Approach

Are you making this leadership mistake about trust?

The participant asked: "Isn't giving trust first just semantics and another way of saying, 'trust, but verify'?" That question was posed to me at a conference where I was speaking about workplace trust. My answer? No, it's not just semantics. The difference is significant.

Applying a "trust, but verify" style can be a trust-diminishing mistake leaders commonly make. While "trust, but verify," at times, can be an essential approach, often it's detrimental. Effective trust-building and leadership practices require knowing when and why to use it.

Here's the simple answer: when the outcome is essential and matters more than the relationship, use "trust, but verify." When the relationship matters more than any single outcome, don't use it. The phrase itself was made popular by President Reagan in the l980s during the Cold War. It referred to information reliability and increased transparency related to nuclear arsenals. In that case, the outcome definitely trumped the relationship(s).

In life-or-death industries or situations, such as pharmaceutical purity, surgical procedures, healthcare, or in cases of safety or security, indeed trust, but verify. Or, in some cases, skip the trust part and just verify, and then verify some more. If you're a leader in these kinds of industries, or have outcome-critical parameters, use it. But most leaders, most of the time, are not in that situation.

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Source: BingImage-free to use and share

"Trust, but verify" is often a response from those who believe "people need to earn trust." But people who insist others must prove trustworthiness spark distrust, not trust. That belief aligns with a Theory X philosophy, postulated as in the l960s by Douglas McGregor's Theory X or Theory Y leadership concepts. Theory X leaders believe people are unproductive, unreliable, and need to be prodded and controlled—i.e. that people inherently can't be trusted. Hence, they must prove it to you. Just as trust begets trust, distrust begets distrust.

When you operate with trust as a verb, giving it first, you invest in the other person. That's not the case with "trust, but verify." Leaders who build effective, long-term work relationships know those relationships aren't predicated on the success of one particular project, initiative, or one-and-done occurrence. Instead, they invest in building trust for the long term, fueled by accountability on both sides.

Here are five trust-building practices effective leaders use to build relationships:

  1. They put themselves in the equation, working to be worthy of others' trust.
  2. They are trust-practitioners, knowledgeable about how to give, spark, build, and create their own trust pockets.
  3. They operate with eyes wide open, assessing the risks of trusting or not trusting, and evaluating whether outcome or relationship is more important in a given situation.
  4. They go first with trust; investing trust incrementally and individually, building trust currency, fueled with accountability that enables engagement and innovation.
  5. They create environments where people have the pertinent information they need to do great work, make informed decisions, and build genuine relationships with self-alignment and behavioral integrity.

Trust, but verify when outcome trumps relationship. But if it doesn't, go first with trust and build trusted relationships.

Find five trust essentials in my latest book: Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation.

About the Author
Nan S Russell

Nan S. Russell is a former corporate executive and the author of four books, including, Trust, Inc. and The Titleless Leader.

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