A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts. -Harold MacMillan

I have a fairly straightforward mind but this whole issue of trust, especially inside an organisation, has me confused.  Every time I work with a senior team on a strategy execution or leadership team alignment assignment, at some point the issue of “trust” comes up and normally a heated discussion follows.

  • “We don’t trust them and we definitely don’t trust their numbers.” 
  •  “You can’t trust that department. They only care about going home at 5 pm.”  
  • “I don’t trust that they will take this assignment as seriously as we need them to.”
  • “I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him!”  

And so on.  Often lack of trust is blamed for poor teamwork, missed deadlines, rework, and a host of other outcomes.

If I believed all this it would be easy to form the opinion that nobody trusts anyone and that lack of trust is another “corporate cancer”, akin to lack of accountability or greed in investment banking.

Let me share a few observations on the subject of trust, because I believe all this “lack of trust” rhetoric is mostly nonsense and actually a smoke screen for a much larger, and more debilitating issue.

Did you know that most of us in the modern world trust total strangers with our lives, and the lives of our loved ones many times a day!  When you walk across an intersection on the green light you trust that the driver in the oncoming car will respect the red light and stop.  When you are driving to work or on vacation with all the family, you trust the other drivers will stop at the intersection.  When you purchase something with a credit card you trust that the shopkeeper is not ripping off your card number for unauthorised purchases.  And a thousand other little events in the day go by unnoticed where we trust total strangers with our wellbeing, and the lives of our loved ones.  Yet we don’t trust the people we know and work with every day?

Give me a break! It’s not about trust, at least not in the definition we all understand.

trust  (trst) n.

1. Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing.
2. Custody; care.
3. Something committed into the care of another; charge.
4.a. The condition and resulting obligation of having confidence placed in one: violated a public trust.

4.b. One in which confidence is placed.
5. Reliance on something in the future; hope.

What’s really happening within a leadership team or department where “TRUST” is such a big concern?

In my experience, most (99.9%) of the people at work are trying to do a good job.  And only the rare “corporate anarchist” comes to work with the conscious intention of making mistakes.  Yet mistakes happen, deadlines are missed, numbers are incorrect, people don’t return calls on time, emails go unanswered, people get upset and say unfortunate things to or about each other.  And after one or two such instances, we lose trust.

If, in the majority of these instances where the issue of trust comes up, we were to do a Root Cause assessment, at some point in the chain of events uncovered we would likely find two root causes: a “broken” process or incomplete alignment around a common objective.

Here’s a process cause: The steps for generating monthly figures is so cumbersome that lack of time, departmental hand-offs and other human issues contribute to incorrect assessments.  Deadlines are often missed because a process step is missing or so cumbersome that it is almost impossible to comply.

Here’s a poor communication cause:  In many cases we, the individual asking for the deadline, didn’t communicate the importance of the deadline, or even set a deadline in the first place. How many times have you heard someone say: “I need that right away?” versus “Can you give me a commitment to have those numbers in my hand by 3pm?”  Which is most likely to get an accurate response?

There are business processes and also human communication processes that are incomplete or broken.  And it’s the accountability of leadership to recognise these issues and root them out, not just assume lack of trust.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. -Steve Jobs

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to Trust?

  1. It’s an interesting one John. For me, it is all about trust (at the surface level) but you are right to say that the causes of the loss of trust do need to be explored. I like Maister’s trust formula where he says that trust is made up of credibility, reliability and intimacy, divided by perceived self-interest. So any breakdown of trust within an organization will have its roots in one or more of those areas. And ultimately of course, the more we know and experience one another at the human level and not just at the role level, the higher the intimacy score and the more this can compensate for any unknowns in other areas. Trust is all about having a little faith in the benevolence of human nature at the end of the day, isn’t it?


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