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Judith M. Bardwick

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The High Cost of Mistrust

Posted: 04/07/10 04:15 PM ET

Some of my very favorite examples of what to do come from examples of the what not to do.

When I was an undergraduate, I returned home for the summer and landed a job as a clerk at a manufacturer of women's undergarments. To say I was underemployed barely touches the surface, but I didn't care because my sole ambition was to earn the maximum I could while my father could still claim me as a tax deduction.

The management of our little unit was comical in its passionate lunacy for never letting us clerks out of their sight. We were monitored for the time we spent in the bathroom; we were required to clock in and out for lunch; we were monitored for break time. We were measured and noted and disciplined for time while no one ever measured what we accomplished.

In this Alice in Wonderland setting the message was, your work doesn't mean anything. And neither do you. You're all so untrustworthy that without us, who knows what you'd do!

And we clerks reciprocated. As we were neither respected nor trusted, we returned the sentiment. In today's vocabulary we had become actively disengaged. Instead of concentrating on our work which, in any event, we could all do in our sleep, we spent hours thinking up ways to get our two managers in trouble. And we succeeded. We managed to get the attention of our managers' bosses whenever our managers did anything unusually ridiculous. We did that so well that when a new operating system was introduced by corporate, one of us unworthy and untrustworthy clerks was put in charge of the new process and ultimately, of the office. What crocodile tears we shed!

Trust is Always Critical

This example comes from the world of business. But the reasons trust never develops, or mistrust replaces trust, are the same in every aspect of life. The dynamics of trust are the same in your personal life or your political judgments as they are in relationships at work.

Where there is mutual trust there is mutual commitment and immense amounts of psychological energy brought to the mission or the relationship. This is called actively engaged and it's the condition in which the mission, the organization, and the relationship have the very best chance of flourishing.

Where the level of trust is borderline so is commitment. This condition is called engaged and where that's the general feeling, commitment is fragile or tenuous. The engaged state allows people to stay in a relationship or a job until either mistrust replaces trust or a better relationship or job comes along.

Where mistrust and active disengagement permeates most relationships, there is no commitment to the organization or the relationships. Instead, most of the time, the largest number of people are looking for ways to harm the organization or the person or people who has injured them.

When people's behavior reflects their egotism, narcissism, greed, and especially hubris, we don't trust them. When their need for power obliterates any possible mutual respect and takes the form of steel bonds of control, barked orders and micro-managing, they are never trusted. When they break their word and lie, either flagrantly by acts of commission, or more subtly by omission, they will not be trusted. When people show no respect for others or trust in them - they will not be trusted.

The absence of trust is not simply passive -- it's not just that something is missing. Instead, in the vacuum of trust, mistrust rushes in and fills the void. Mistrust is dangerous and expensive. It means people expect the worst and behave in line with that. Rules to control behavior proliferate and they are inevitably ineffective because only shared values and trust can really govern behavior given the wide range of possibilities of what could happen. In the face of mistrust, cooperation and teamwork are merely slogans shouted out by executives in the face of increasing narcissism and territoriality. Mistrust means everyone watches their back and not anyone else's.

And once there is no trust and mistrust is the norm, it is almost impossible to create or recreate trust.

Trust may be the single most critical building block underlying effectiveness. Without trust, leaders are impotent because they do not have followers. And without followers, nothing gets accomplished. No matter how great the insights and seminal ideas of the leader, without followers nothing will happen.

In every relationship, whether it's a boss, a politician, a friend, a partner or spouse, trust resides in the belief that in this relationship there is no duplicity, no manipulation, and no narcissistic ego. Like many profound things, this is really simple: trust rests on the belief that the other person and every act are transparent. This literally means: What you see is all there is.

But when that belief is broached and the feeling of betrayal ushers in mistrust, the piper will be paid. But rest assured, no matter how many acquiescent smiles appear on the face of those feeling betrayed, the payback interest they demand can never be paid off. That's why mistrust really costs.