Achievement and Trust Are Not the Same

It is said that there are a number of kinds of trust in business settings. There’s trust in another’s competence, for example, and trust in another’s fundamental reliability, integrity or consistency. In business settings seeing how these different kinds of trust interact is vital. But none of these forms is more important or complicated than fundamental interpersonal trust — a complex, authentic, and mutually nurturing state characterized by honesty and an emotional bond of care for the well-being of one another. Honesty in the relationship refers to both my willingness to be honest with myself — in front of you — and also my willingness to be honest with you about you. The emotional bond of care represents a source of affiliation and empathy with you, and reflects a sense of personal loyalty. Thus, interpersonal trust represents a place of powerful, mutual influence and life meaning.


People in the business world often maintain various distortions and compensations in their relationships because fundamental interpersonal trust is such potent safety factor. For example, people “suck up to” the boss as a way to demonstrate one-sided loyalty, hoping that there will be enough return on their emotional investment to protect themselves from harm. Similarly, people sometimes attempt to prove that they are exceptionally competent as a way to be trusted, again a one-sided simulation of actual interpersonal trust. Unfortunately, such strategies can also lead to competition with peers or with the boss.

And, also unfortunately, there are leaders who promise, unconsciously or more overtly that “you will have my trust” if you demonstrate ever higher accomplishment — of what I want. The subtle promise of trust and the fear of losing it can become one of the most powerful motivators for people, particularly for those who are naturally achievers and have their own deep hooks from their conditioning — for example if their parents or caregivers held out the promise of love and praise for perfectionistic or competitive accomplishment.

In this sense, trust is often a kind of invisible target. We think we want to be successful, to arrive, to have a certain kind of lifestyle. We are told that happiness comes from such individualistic accomplishment. But within that goal is our invisible need for relationships of deep trust because within them is the real stature, recognition, connection and meaning we want, the unacknowledged heart we yearn for.

No one wants to lose the boss’s trust, especially in recessionary times when jobs are more fragile, and even when experiencing that trust is actually impossible. The possibility and promise are all that is needed, and the appearance from time to time that someone actually won the trust, however briefly.

The trick here is understanding that achievement and the temporary respect it may deliver are not a substitute for true interpersonal trust. My experience has been that the true thing at work most often happens when a relationship transcends the business constraints of the roles placed on the people involved. Most of us have had some experience of such relationships, ones that go beyond the work, and when that does occur with someone to whom we have a reporting relationship, it can create an awesome relationship. It also can also create risks of awesome betrayal.

But the main thing is to avoid confusion. Trust and respect-based-on-achievement are two very different things. Achievement cannot buy you true interpersonal trust with another person, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to make it so.

Does this mean we have to be cynical about relationships at work or hold something back from full engagement? No, I don’t think it does. But it might be worth some reflection why some try to achieve trust through achievement. And if that’s you, maybe that reflection will bring you to some further understanding of how much energy you have put into something that never materialized, what this has to do with personal insecurity, which is to say fear, and what opportunities for courage and genuine connection are available to you.

It may also cause you to reflect on a work culture that opens this particular door to illusion, how enmeshed the system might be in itself, and how from a human standpoint it needs to change.

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  • Another excellent post Dan.

    What you are describing is basically the different between something akin to unconditional love vs being on the never-ending treadmill of having to earn it by jumping through a number of hoops based on real or perceived expectations.

    I’m reminded of a line from your Meditations on Friday piece:

    ‘…loving the unknown irony of our collective solitude in space
    and our sometimes awkward work together,
    self-deceived as it might be.’

    In my experience, it seems that every relationship that we encounter or have, be it in the workplace or elsewhere, involves having to invest in discerning where each person is at. Sometimes, people may be as close to their true selves as possible, and the ‘boss’ may automatically rule it to be kissing up. Suspicious of all kindness shown. When the other person recognizes this to be the case and then tries to re-adjust and back off, oftentimes, the very same person who mocked the kindness will then be dissatisfied with a noticeable change and distance. Blaming the other person.

    This is simply one of a myriad of examples however, as you’ve revealed in your post, trust is a delicate issue. It is challenging because creating and establishing genuine trust differs in every relationship we attempt to have.

    You’ve made so many valuable points, I won’t attempt to list them all so I’ll simply end with one of many that stood out for me.

    ‘But the main thing is to avoid confusion. Trust and respect-based-on-achievement are two very different things. Achievement cannot buy you true interpersonal trust with another person, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to make it so.’

    Valuable information worth spending some time reflecting on. Thanks for sharing Dan.

  • What you’ve highlighted so well, Samantha is how no single formula works and you have to refigure with each person. In that way, interpersonal trust between people always has a unique side, an “us” that cannot be catalogued, and which always is forming and reforming. I like that perspective very much! Thank you and all the best, Samantha!

  • Really thought-provoking post, Dan. Work relationships can be a tricky thing. Achievement builds confidence in your ability and may create a tighter bond in the boss-team member relationship. The relationship can still be a solely work-related one, depending on the boss approach to relationships. If they are more open to be open, then the relationship may expand beyond just the workplace. Glimpses into life begin to show light.

    In either case, business is business, and life if life. Even though they intersect, if layoffs need to happen, the personal relationships just make it harder on both parties.

    It seems, I guess, that we just need to always do our best so our record speaks for itself and for our trustworthiness. It builds our brand for our current workplace and our next. Being trustworthy and results-oriented not only builds decent relationships, it builds who we are as an individual, a leader.


  • Jon

    I love your observation, Jon: “business is business, and life is life.” I think if we are conscious about it, we can certainly do a lot to build on the positive intersections and invite closer connections. And achievement can be an important part of that. As you say, “we do our best.” It’s the being conscious part I’m trying to highlight here. I’ve known a number of leaders who keep hoping to experience the trust from someone they report to, and keep the illusion going that if only they do enough, keep going, one day they’ll receive it. That’s a recipe for hurt and, ultimately, resentment. What we can always do is learn to better step into our own true skins, define where our own expectations and boundaries are, and not be manipulated by the situation, others, or ourselves.

    Thanks again, Jon, for your sensitive, thoughtful observations!

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