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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The Arc Workshop
On May 14–15, I will be facilitating The Arc workshop in Seattle — an example of long-term leadership self-discovery. The cost for this small group workshop is $500. For more information please download the full brochure by clicking the image below. If you are interested or would just like to talk about the workshop, please get in touch!