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. 

RSS and email sub­scrip­tion, month­ly Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship newslet­ter, search and oth­er func­tions may be found at the “Fur­ther Infor­ma­tion” tab at the bot­tom of this page.

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!


  • 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!

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.