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The Truth About Trust


Mike Cook lives and works from his home in Anacortes, Washington. He is the author of Thriving in the Middle: How the Best Managers Create Mutual Success. He can be reached at [email protected] or his website


Have you ever worked for or around someone who didn’t seem to trust you? Stop and think for a moment about your experience in such a situation—getting ready for work every day, wondering what unpleasant surprises were in store for you; making sure you’ve checked in with that person before taking the smallest initiative; that knot in your stomach or that ache between your shoulder blades? Not very pleasant to either recall or think about, is it?

Personally, I was blessed early in my career to have a manager who operated with a unique brand of trust in me. I made mistakes, and each time, he dealt with the situation gracefully and responsibly. If he had delegated something to me and it was not done well, he always held himself accountable for having allowed me the opportunity to either meet his expectations or let him down. This is not to say that he didn’t hold me accountable too. He did, and from those discussions, I learned from my mistakes. During the three and a half years I worked for this manager, he never revoked his trust. The trust and freedom he allowed me gave me the freedom to bring the best I had to offer and fully engage from the get-go.

On one occasion, he sat me down and said (in his very wise New Jersey accent) “Mike, from here on out, it is going to be up to you. You are going to have to decide if you want to be right or if you want to be rich.” It took me a while to realize what he was saying—that as an HR leader in training, one of the things I really needed to understand was that not everything was black and white, and my tendency to moralize with our line managers was not what they needed. They needed my help, not my judgment or criticism. They needed to know that, from my perspective, they were trusted and not held to perfection.

Now put yourself in the shoes of the person who doesn’t trust you. Maybe it’s not you they don’t trust. Maybe it’s people in any work setting. Unfortunately, I think many of us unconsciously feel or act the same way. This reality is covered up with convenient cliches justifying behavior that might otherwise be considered paranoid:

“Well, you can never be too careful.”


“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

These are just versions of how to avoid depending on or being vulnerable with others.

Preparing for this post, it occurred to me that there are three truths about trust, but no common definition:

  1. If I trust, I can count on being disappointed.
  2. If I do not trust, my life will likely be safe, but it will feel more like surviving than thriving.
  3. If I am up to anything of consequence—anything that will really make any difference—then I will need the involvement of others. Therefore, trusting is a foregone conclusion: I will trust or I will accomplish very little in this lifetime.

With the above three truths in mind, you would do well to establish a tolerance for disappointment. If this sounds paradoxical to you, I empathize. It appears that there is always a paradox to be dealt with where trust is involved, especially if you insist on defining trust as having anything to do with someone else’s behavior. However, if you are going to build competency in the people you manage, you will find yourself dealing with their mistakes—and they will make them.

Consider these words from Peter Block, author of Community: The Structure of Belonging:

“Trust is more an attitude about myself, an estimate of my own capacities, my own ability to handle whatever comes up. If I do not trust someone…a more accurate statement might be that I am not happy with the way I act or feel when I am around this person. It is my sense of being out of control that bothers me…”

Unfortunately, in my experience, most people do create their definition of trust in terms of the behaviors of others. According to them, you must earn their trust or some other nonsense!

While it may seem counter intuitive, as in the case of the Peter Block quote above, there is considerable power in defining trust in reference to oneself. This opportunity is too often neglected at great personal loss.

Consider this:

A definition of trust that is filled with power is a function of my relationship with myself.

Do I have the confidence in myself to deal with whatever comes my way? Can I interact successfully with various personalities? Can I rely on employees, co-workers, or managers who clearly have superior subject knowledge to my own? Can I honor my intentions when interacting with people of differing agendas? And most importantly, can I count on myself to respond and deliver without excuses even when someone has let me down?

This perspective on trust gives reason to think that you can be effective no matter what and no matter who is involved. Make no mistake about it, trust, like we often say about beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a perspective. By adopting this perspective, you place the responsibility for trust in your own lap. Your power comes from the fact that there never was anything you could do about anyone else’s behavior except to ask for what you wanted and hold them to account for what they said they would do.

My first manager (the one I mentioned earlier) trusted in the way I’m describing. Over time, I developed both confidence and competence, and my capacity increased dramatically. Of course, like any truly great manager, his trust in me cost him in the end—I was promoted and moved on. And of course, he trusted that whoever took my place would eventually be exactly what he needed, until they moved on as well.

Where have you abdicated your responsibility for trust? When will you take it back?


Want to learn more about building trust in your organization? Join renowned neuroscientist Paul Zak, Emplify CEO Santiago Jaramillo and employee engagement strategist Michael Vasey for our webinar on “7 Simple Ways to Improve Employee Engagement Through Trust.” Sign up >>

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