We are facing a crisis of trust in the world today.
Edelman’s Trust Barometer, which measures levels of global trust in institutions, reached an historic low this year—hitting a level not seen since the great depression.
For the first time ever, the majority of Americans say they do not trust either leading Presidential candidate (55% for Clinton; 58% for Trump).
Trust has never been so low. Yet, all major trends that shape our world today—from globalization to social media, immigration to e-commerce, distributed workforces to fighting terrorism—sit atop a bedrock of trust.
We trust when we stay at a stranger’s house, after having only exchanged a couple of messages on Airbnb; we trust when we rely on a co-worker halfway around the world, to come through with a deliverable despite never having met them; we trust when we board a plane, enter our credit card information, swipe right on Tinder, when we drive, visit a doctor and vote.
Trust makes the world go round. But the world, right now, is lacking trust.
Being willing and able to solve this paradox—to trust, even in a world that’s increasingly untrusting, and to be trustworthy when many in the world are not—is the key to success in the 21st century.
Trust Your Instinct to Trust
Game theory is a powerful tool that economists, psychologists, sociologists and many others use to model and understand human behavior. A great deal of scholarly research has been done to understand the role that trust plays in how we make decisions. The most notable is a landmark study by Berg, Dickhaut and McCabe, entitled “Trust, Reciprocity and Human Behavior.” If you’re a game theory geek, I highly recommend reading it; otherwise, just trust me to summarize it for you.
The researchers created a game in which subjects choose how much money to send to another person to invest on their behalf (knowing there’s a risk the other person will simply pocket the money instead of investing it). It would be reasonable to assume that participants would not trust this random person, and so they would instead take the approach of not sending any money—refusing to trust the stranger, and eschewing any possible investment gains. The study shows that the approach most people take—and the one which yields the best outcome for all—is to be trusting of the other person (even if they don’t know who that person is). This experiment has been tested and reproduced and generally stands up extremely well.
The takeaway is, even if our world seems to be telling us to be wary, to be insular, to trust no one lest we’re taken advantage of—not only is showing trust generally a more successful strategy (as Berg, Dickhaut and McCabe show), it’s actually our instinct, or in their words a “primitive” natural instinct.
The Virtuous Cycle
Trust does not stand alone; it is forever intertwined with trustworthiness. As one party proves they are trustable, the other more easily trusts. As one trusts, it comes easier to trust others, reinforcing our natural instincts to trust. It’s a virtuous cycle. However, as the state of the world today shows, the opposite cycle, where a lack of trust begets a lack of trustworthiness, can spiral out of control. It leaves a series of relationships and institutions battered in its wake.
Therefore, one of the most important acts of microleadership one can take is to approach every interaction first with trust, and then trustworthiness. This does not imply blind trust—my apologies to the Nigerian princes whose enticing business proposals still sit in my inbox unanswered—but rather, conveying that your first instinct is to trust, and that you are someone to whom trust can—and should—be granted.
This enables the virtuous cycle of trusting and trustworthiness to take hold, as it transforms potential adversaries into partners.
To put this in privileged, sharing economy terms—you should enter your Uber trusting it will be a five star ride, rather than a one star ride. If you enter expecting a one star ride, you’ll find yourself more critical, more controlling and more on edge. This, in return, will result in a driver who is less able to be their best—and thus even less likely to earn your trust. If you enter expecting a five star ride, you’ll meet your Uber driver on terms where you both can be your best and where a great ride, or even a great relationship, can flourish. It’s an amazing thing—when you trust others to be worthy of your trust, you’ll find others working hard to show they deserve it.
Trust within Organizations
Trust is the currency powering 21st century economies. This is most evident in companies and organizations, where the speed and complexity of decisions and operations are increasing exponentially—all magnified by growing public scrutiny and external pressure.
In his brilliant book, Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal begins by describing how the US Army—despite an overpowering lead in traditional military metrics like troops, equipment and training—was initially losing to Al Qaeda in Iraq. This was because its top-down leadership model’s rigid hierarchy couldn’t keep pace with the deft approach of combatants. The book details how he transitioned the army into a networked organization, where trust was the linchpin that kept everything together. He opened up daily briefings—via Skype—to teammates around the world, trusting them with highly classified information, knowing full well he couldn't absolutely guarantee these top secret updates wouldn’t get out. He showed incredible trust in his troops—and this trust was reciprocated with trustworthiness, which resulted in empowered ground troops with the agency to do whatever needed to be done in the moment. Trust flowed down from the top, and trustworthiness flowed up—all of which enabled the troops to move with speed, precision, and efficacy previously impossible.
Get Off the No-Trust Merry-Go-Round
Companies where leaders don't trust their teams are like merry-go-rounds: plenty of movement, but stuck in place.
One of my biggest failures as a leader came just as I thought I was excelling. I judged my worth based on how many decisions I was involved in, how many meetings I sat in on, and how many people checked with me for approval. On these metrics, I was thriving.
In reality, though, I was failing myself and my team. I was a bottleneck to things getting done, all because I didn’t show my teammates how much I trusted them to do their best work.
By placing myself in the center of everything, without extending trust throughout the organization, my leadership was like the middle pole of a merry-go-round. There was plenty of action and excitement revolving around me—and the illusion of movement—but we were firmly planted in one spot the whole time, going around in circles because my lack of trust held us there.
As I practiced letting go and trusting, I learned that people are capable of far more than we could ever expect. The more I let go, the more I saw people at their best. This positively reinforced my ability to trust and our merry-go-round transformed into a thrilling, high-speed roller coaster where we all bolted forward together.
Dare to Trust
Trust is of paramount importance. But it’s not a foolproof recipe. There will always be some people who violate your trust, or others who will fail to trust you, despite evidence of how trustworthy you are. Don’t let others’ lack of trust affect your own.
As Abraham Lincoln said, “I would rather trust people and be disappointed from time to time than live a life of cynicism.”
Trust bravely in others; boldly show yourself to be trustworthy; in so doing, know that you are tipping the scales of society toward a flourishing, thriving world.