But I Didn't Mean to Let You Down!

How trustworthiness requires good judgement as well as good intentions.

Posted Oct 20, 2016

cocoparisienne/pixabay CC0
Source: cocoparisienne/pixabay CC0

Trust is central to our lives. We are deeply social creatures who cannot survive without trusting one another to at least some degree, yet we are only too conscious of how vulnerable this makes us. When we are betrayed, when our trust is misplaced, the consequences can be devastating, both emotionally and practically.

This means that detecting trustworthiness–and untrustworthiness–is also central to our lives. We need to get it right about other people. And we need to find ways of demonstrating our trustworthiness to those around us: if others don’t trust us, our lives will falter, not flourish.

So what is it we are looking for, and trying to demonstrate? What is trustworthiness? Sincerity and good intentions are crucial: someone who deliberately intends to mislead us, to let us down, to manipulate us, is definitely an untrustworthy person, even if he or she is good at pretending otherwise.

But sincerity and good intentions by themselves are not enough for trustworthiness.  Think about recent occasions when you have been let down by others, or those shameful moments when you are conscious of disappointing other people. Some of these occasions might include deliberate dishonesty. But, likely as not, you’ll have been let down by well-meaning friends or co-workers who have simply bitten off more than they can chew, overestimating what they can manage in the time allowed, or underestimating the difficulty of a task. And, likely as not, you’ve been that well-meaning but over-committed person yourself.

This isn’t simply the preserve of flaky folk who never plan ahead–even the most organized amongst us have been there, finding ourselves with more on our plates than we can cope with. This is one reason why it is so stressful to be over-committed, at home, at work, or through trying to juggle both of these: most of us don’t like to betray other people’s expectations, yet we end up behaving in untrustworthy ways by letting people down, despite starting out with the best of intentions.

Maybe this seems harsh. Maybe this kind of well-meaning but ultimately disappointing behavior is better described as ‘unreliability’ rather than ‘untrustworthiness’, exactly because it often springs from good intentions and a desire to help other people.  Maybe that’s right. But unreliability can still cause huge problems for those around us, even if it doesn’t feel as personally damaging as outright deception or manipulation. 

What can we do to fix this? A partial solution is to take more care over our commitments, to think through what we can realistically manage before saying ‘yes’ to a new task. This is a good idea in principle, but we don’t all have the freedom to say ‘no’ when things get too much. When you have responsibility for children or other vulnerable people, you can’t simply decide to take a break. And when your job depends on meeting certain targets or expectations, no matter how unrealistic these are, you are not free to duck out of these. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution in such circumstances, but a good first step is communication, either with those who are making demands upon you, or with those who may be able to help out. People may be surprised to learn that you need support, but they may surprise you in return by what they can offer. 

Find out more:

I explore issues of trust, reliability and trustworthiness in Trust: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2012).

There are many ‘getting things done’ guides out there, but I appreciate David Allen’s emphasis on calm, methodical approaches to that feeling of being over-committed http://gettingthingsdone.com/