Are we putting too much trust in trust?


In the sixties, the Everly Brothers made a postcard picture of the perfect team. Everything from their close harmonies to their matching waistcoats and imperturbable hair conveyed unity and rapport. But the fairy tale shattered in 1973 when Don Everly threw down his guitar and walked off the stage.

Why do bands break up so spectacularly? Gossip rags speculate. But ask a consultant, and they will likely respond with unwavering certainty: there’s an underlying trust problem.

“Lack of trust” is now the stock diagnosis for every kind of team disfunction, and the idea that trust is the glue of organizations has become unquestioned dogma. Amazon.com returns more than 5,000 search results for business titles on the subject.

The self-evident mistrust epidemic has spawned countless articles and studies, along with a cottage industry of well-meaning facilitators laboring like faith healers to build trust within teams. Thousands of managers have hauled legions of employees off to retreats and workshops where they clamber through rope courses and fall backward into the arms of their coworkers.

Unfortunately, the prescription is infinitely more dramatic than the cure. Once the zeal of the moment has passed, workplace realities reassert themselves and before long the promising glow of shared vulnerability fades.

Not all trust work verges on the evangelistic. Researchers have drawn a legitimate connection between trust and performance, and managers have plenty of sober-minded science to draw on as they seek to repair relationships.

But are we trusting trust too much? If pressed, most managers would acknowledge that even the most earnest trust building efforts commonly amount to scenic detours leading back to business as usual. Isn’t it time we openly challenge the orthodox view that trust is the primary lever of organizational effectiveness?

Trust is indeed very basic. By default, humans trust each other. We are hardwired for it. As social creatures, trust is what allows us to organize in groups and support each other. And as we work together, we naturally come to trust each other even more. Trust is naturally occurring.

But the fact that trust is naturally occurring suggests that if it is missing, there must be a reason. In other words, a lack of trust is a symptom. Mistrust is a symptom with symptoms of its own, to be sure—and this makes it look deceptively like a root cause—but it is a symptom nonetheless.

Much attention has been given to how managers can address trust issues directly, which too often has the same result as covering the low fuel light on a car dashboard with black tape. Several popular formulas for thinking about trust fall into this trap. They treat trust as a foundational problem rather than an indicator of something more fundamental.

And what might that be? A lack of shared purpose, vision, and action. Shared purpose is the reason organizations exist at all, yet organizations frequently lose sight of what they aspire to achieve and why. This is an important problem, because as humans we are highly attuned to something social scientists call “interdependent outcomes.” We instinctively know that working together is essential to our wellbeing and are hyper-sensitive to how well the groups we are part of function.

A lack of clear vision gives rise to a range of damaging behaviors. Morale diminishes. People compete to give less and get more. Accountability evaporates. Individuals and groups isolate rather than collaborate. Top performers (people with options) flee. And yes, teams inevitably develop trust issues.

In contrast, consider the way perfect strangers are able to come together as ad hoc teams in times of tragedy and disaster, when the vision before them is so clear and compelling that they cannot stand idle. Just add purpose—no trust building required.

This brings us back to the Everly Brothers. Once you wade through all the triggers—the drug problems, the disrespect, and the showing up late—the root cause was what has torn so many talented groups apart: Don and Phil Everly felt they were not aligned. Fans tend to respond with sad disbelief. The hair! The harmony! All you have to do is dream, guys! But it’s not our judgment that matters. What matters is whether the team members feel they are pulling hard, together, in a direction they believe in.

As leaders, it is easy to feel just like baffled fans. Everybody gets paid. Can’t we all just get along? But we know better. We intuitively understand what it takes for an organization to thrive. It’s the energy startups enjoy when they are most attuned to the value of their efforts. It’s the exhilaration that comes from completing a meaningful project. It’s the satisfaction of realizing that “we could never do this on our own.” In short, it takes shared vision, shared action, and shared results.

Many excellent books have been (and will be) written about trust, and we must not ignore what they have to teach us—particularly when it comes to repairing relationships and cultivating candor so that unclear vision can be routinely identified and addressed. But no trust building or rebuilding will ever move the needle unless an organization simultaneously addresses how well it is connected to a clear sense of purpose.

As a business community, it is time we begin thinking of trust not as a root cause but as an effect with effects of its own. More importantly, we must remind ourselves that our foremost role as leaders is to create a clear and compelling vision and engage people with it. If we do, we can trust that trust will follow.

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