Charlie Green Tips the Sacred Cows of Trust

Charlie Green, trust guru, has been a mentor of mine for many years. His most recent book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, provides concrete tools and proven steps to build trust where and when you need it most.

I'm excited to share a conversation we had recently about the intersection of our two areas of research.

JB: Charlie, you help people build trust. I help people overcome wasteful, dangerous bits of conventional wisdom. I wonder if there's any overlap. Are there any sacred cows that need to be tipped when it comes to trust?

CG: Jake, I'll be interested to hear your sacred cows on trust too – my expertise is in subject matter, yours in species (bovine)!

There are at least three sacred cows.  The simple ones are "trust takes time," and "it takes only a moment to destroy trust."

As with most things trust-related, it depends on what aspect of trust you're talking about. For example, it does take a long time to build up a track record, which drives trust-as-reliability. But when it comes to trust-as-emotional-safety, or trust-as-he's-got-my-back, we make snap judgments all the time, and with generally pretty good results.

As to the speed of trust destruction, it's not really a question of speed, but of intensity. If my trust is very shallow, it won't take much to overturn it. I may trust Amazon to guess my book preferences, but if they try to recommend restaurants and fail, I'll lose what little trust I had. That's not about speed – that's about shallow trust to begin with. The clincher here is battered wife syndrome – if trust truly were destroyed in a moment, they'd all leave their husbands at the first blow. They don't, and that's because powerful trust takes a lot of anti-trust to tear it down. Notice how long it took for people to believe their eyes and ears about Bernie Madoff.

The third sacred cow is about trust and risk: people all the time quote Ronald Reagan's "trust but verify." The truth, which is obvious on reflection, is that if you verify, then it wasn't trust in the first place. If you trust someone, the whole point is you don't verify. This is important because you simply cannot have trust without risk. The essence of trusting someone is willfully putting yourself in harm's way, at the risk of being ill-treated by that person, yet doing it anyway.
That's an important point, because in all our efforts at risk-reduction in, say, posing detailed financial regulations, we think we're increasing trust. In a perverse way, we're actually hurting it, because we're substituting verifiable processes for that most human of all relationships, trust.
JB: I want to pick up on your third sacred cow: "trust but verify". I love your point. Saying "trust but verify" is exactly the same as saying "don't trust". "Trust but verify" is nothing more than a rhetorical phrase to rationalize paranoia. Trust, as you say, involves risk. 

In fact, can't we define trust as "the absence of verification"? Aren't trust and verification simply two sides of the same coin?

Which brings to mind a different sacred cow to consider: trust is good. Maybe it's not. In particular, is trust better than verification? Maybe it's not. Maybe it's just different. Maybe trust and verification are simply substitutes for each other. Sometimes trust is the right strategy, and sometimes verification is.

Verification increases cost and reduces risk. Trust increases risk and reduces cost. Trust and verification are two different strategies to trade off between risk and cost. Verifying something with a PIN code or a contract or a background check takes time and money, but it lowers risk. On the other hand, if you trust someone, you save on all the transaction costs associated with verifying. But you take on all the risks associated with the chance that person might be lying.

What do you think, Charlie? Is trust a virtue towards which we should all aspire? Or is it simply a value-neutral strategy that sometimes is a better approach than verification, and sometimes is worse?

CG: I think that's very right, Jake. The fog-sculpting happy-thinking trust fans out there are guilty of starry-eyed thinking about trust, but you're right, it's just another phenomenon of human relationships and psychology. If you trust everyone all the time, you're either a saint or a patsy, and there just aren't that many saints. And of course the reverse.

I think you're right about the tradeoff between verification and trust, but let me push it one step further. You're certainly right about PIN codes and the like. But when it comes to interpersonal trust, there's an interesting Heisenberg Principle-like effect. The act of trusting someone actually makes them more trustworthy. This is common wisdom, enshrined in quotations (e.g. Henry Stimson, "the best way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him."). But it's not fully appreciated.

What it means is that trust has a powerful risk-reducing component built into it. The reason is simple. Human beings profoundly work by reciprocity. Etiquette is nothing more than an elaborate set of rituals designed to show reciprocating respect. Trust fits perfectly into that model. If you trust me, I will reciprocate, first by living up to your expectation of me, and later by trusting you in turn. 

That's the great thing about trust – it contains within it not just the obvious one-vector value of more risk vs. less cost, but another, countervailing vector, that of small risk mitigating larger risk later. I should note this is true of trust between humans, not between humans and brands and corporations and agencies. But it's powerful in that arena.
JB: Got it. When you bestow trust on others, you increase the chance they will behave in a trustworthy way. So both cost and risk go down, which is a nice articulation of the business value of interpersonal trust. Is the corollary true? Can the act of verification reduce the chance that someone will behave in a trustworthy way?

CG: Actually, yes; the act of verification can have a negative effect on trust. I remember vividly the case of a convenience store chain that was suffering from 150% annual store manager turnover. They hired my firm to determine the profile of a store manager who would stay longer.

Turns out, the company had a practice of giving every store manager a lie detector test every month. So, after getting tested five or six times, a store manager would figure, "well somebody must be getting rich here, maybe I should try it?" And he would steal, and get caught, and the turnover went up a notch.

There's an old saying, "whether you think good or ill of a person, that's what you'll get." It rings true to me.