Trust Issues

My son borrowed his friend’s dad’s Mercedes AMG convertible for prom. When he told me he might borrow the car and asked me what I thought, I tried to be careful how I responded. Growing up, we didn’t have friends with cars that nice. I went to prom in my ’65 Chevelle Malibu (no, it wasn’t cool, nor has it ever been since). If we’d had friends who owned a Mercedes AMG, my parents would have said a hard “No” to me borrowing it.

We all have trust issues. I know if you are the parent of a teen (or ever have been) the above situation created some serious feelings and thoughts for you. If your first thoughts were like mine of all the reasons why he shouldn’t borrow the car, then maybe we can discover something together. If your reaction was, “Why shouldn’t he borrow the car?”, then maybe you can volunteer to help the rest of us.

Trust is a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone. How that belief is cultivated depends heavily on my view of people in general. There are many ways that trust is built with and by people, but I would like to simplify things and define everyone with just two systems. 

  1. Some people grant trust and anticipate that others will live up to the expectations granted. 

2. Some people want others to earn trust, and they watch to see if others fail to live up to the expectations placed on them.

Can you see the subtle but important difference?

In the second condition, there is an underlying assumption that the person might fail us and, in some way, betray our trust. Therefore, we meter out responsibility and autonomy in small bits to see if they are used wisely. In this system, there is little relationship between a person’s capability and the trust given. Rather, the relationship is about our willingness to see them as trustworthy (or not). The trustworthiness is built slowly by a lack of failure, and it is set back significantly if failure occurs.

Contrast this with the first condition where trust is granted and success is expected. Here, the underlying assumption is that the person will do what someone with their experience and skill set should be capable of doing. The relationship between capability and trust is connected to the belief the person will succeed and treating them as if they already have.

It is important to pause here and remember that we are talking about situations where the individual in question could reasonably be assumed to have the capability to achieve the outcome desired. We are not talking about entrusting a million-dollar project to someone who has never managed a project of any size. This is about the assumptions we make when we do give someone new responsibility.

Am I assuming that people will fail, or am I expecting them to succeed?

Sociologist Robert Merton, who coined the term “self-fulfilling prophecy,” noticed that sometimes a belief brings about consequences that cause reality to match the belief. These prophecies can involve intrapersonal processes (i.e., an individual’s belief affects his or her own behavior) and/or interpersonal processes (i.e., an individual’s belief affects another’s behavior). In the 1960s, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen provided evidence for the idea that our expectations of others also have an impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior toward them and, in turn, their behavior also.

The researchers chose a random set of kids in a public school and told their teachers that the children had scored well on the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition and were therefore “growth spurters.” These kids, it was explained, had great potential and would likely have significant intellectual improvement within the year.

After gathering performance data on all the kids, it was found that the “growth spurters” showed greater improvement than the “ordinary” kids. Since the kids were unaware of their designation, the only explanation for the outcomes was that the teachers’ expectations influenced the students’ performance.

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur”

Rosenthal & Babad, 1985

When we have trust issues, it robs us and our team of the potential we all have. Believing that the people around me are capable and will succeed can influence them to do so. This helps everyone. We develop a team that reaches its goals. Our team gets the rewards that accompany achievement. Finally, the individuals we serve develop into more confident and capable people.

I’m proud of my son’s friend’s dad (who is also my friend) for confirming that he believes my son is trustworthy by trusting him. When my son asked me, I told him that he was old enough to make this decision himself, going against my ingrained emotional response and choosing to confirm for my son that I see him as an adult. Could something bad have happened? Of course, but it didn’t. Rather, something great happened. My son got to practice making adult decisions and then experienced success that we all knew he was capable of.

Trust doesn’t have to be an issue. We can choose to trust our people and give them the chance to demonstrate to themselves and to us what they are capable of. However, we must believe in them, and we must believe in ourselves too. Trust issues are leadership issues. If we are serving our people well, we will risk the occasional failure and bet on our people to exceed our expectations. Trusting people leads to them becoming trustworthy, and it is The Kimray Way.