A Question of Trust

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When we talk about trust, we think about people making big decisions in organisations. We might think about financial transparency or corporate decisions around pay, sustainability or stewardship. In truth though, most of the decision making that happens across a culture is on a much smaller and more obviously human scale.

I was involved in a sensitive negotiation with somebody recently and a question came up of when a decision we had been working towards together became binding. The issue was that there would be a delay between the agreement being reached and legal documents being signed, during which irreversible actions needed to be taken. I suggested that when we reached agreement we would shake hands and, at that point, it would be binding. I was also able to say that I had never gone back on a handshake in my life and wasn’t about to start now. After a brief adjournment to consider this, the other party agreed saying that she had spoken to people we knew in common and had heard about my “reputation for honesty” and that I could be trusted.

Reflecting on this after the event, I thought about the people that she and I knew in common and from whom she would have heard that about me. What struck me then is that I had never been involved in anything of any serious consequence with those people. Yes, we had done business together but never on anything that I would have thought may involve elements of trust. There was clearly something though in the way we had worked together that led them to that conclusion and I felt flattered.

The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that I shouldn’t feel too flattered. When I began counting the number of people I trust in my professional network I quickly ran out of fingers and toes. It became much easier to count those people who I would not trust and with whom I would be much more comfortable with a signed legal agreement than a handshake.

Of course there are those in my network with whom I have been involved in important decision making that had immediate and obvious consequences. For the majority of people though our interactions have been mundane and ordinary. Nevertheless, there had been enough of a sense of integrity and enough of a sense of consistency that I would not doubt them or be reluctant to take them at their word.

The image I have used at the top of this piece is of a quote from Einstein. I am aware of an almost identical line from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament. Perhaps there are many other references in historical documents providing even more evidence that this is not a new idea. I think though that it is an important one to keep in mind as we think about corporate trust and just what it is that builds, or damages, a culture of trust. Every interaction we have in an organisation contributes to the culture of trust – however small or insignificant it may seem.

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