Trust is an important part of every relationship, but in some cases it’s more important than others. It’s easy to say you trust someone when you can watch their every move to see if they’re doing what they said they would do. It’s harder to trust someone when they’re far away for extended periods of time and you can’t see what they’re doing.
Trust is a substitute for inspection. When you trust someone, it means that you have an inherent faith that they will do what they said they will do, and that they will abide by the principles to which you have both agreed. But even in a trusting relationship, it’s good to do inspection every now and then, just to reassure both parties that the trusting relationship is continuing.
Trust is Between Individuals
Trust is between individuals, not organizations. You may say that you trust your IT organization, but what you really mean is that you trust the person in charge of your IT organization to make sure that everyone in their organization follows the agreements you have established. Or you may mean that you trust a specific individual in your IT organization — whether or not they’re the manager — to follow up with other individuals in the organization who are doing work on your behalf. That trusted individual will either ensure that the work is being done properly or will report back to you immediately if there is a problem that needs to be solved.
In either case, if that individual leaves the organization and is replaced by someone else, then the trust is suspended and must be re-earned. You may give the replacement individual the benefit of the doubt and make it easier for the new person to earn your trust, but you will at the very least have a heightened sense of concern about the new relationship until the trust is proven.
Building and Losing Trust
When you start a relationship from a position of strong distrust, it may take a long time for that trust to build. If you have a history of being betrayed in your trust — trusting someone and then having the person violate the terms of your trust — then it will take even longer for you to trust someone new. The ease with which you build trust depends on the sum of the results of all of the trusting relationships you’ve ever had during your lifetime. For some individuals, the history of trust is so bad that they will never have a trusting relationship.
No matter how long it takes to build a trusting relationship, the trust can be lost in an instant. One betrayal can sabotage a trusting relationship and reset the trust level back to zero. Even a miscommunication that seems to temporarily imply betrayal can severely handicap a trusting relationship. In either situation the trust can usually be rebuilt, but it will take effort on the part of both parties in the relationship. Every betrayal of trust — no matter how small — makes the possible rebuilding of the relationship that much more difficult, and there is a point where the relationship can never be rebuilt.
Trusting relationships are between two human beings, and all human beings occasionally make mistakes. The difference between betrayal and a mistake is intent: if the violation of trust is accidental then it is more easily forgiven. But too many mistakes will destroy trust no matter what the intent. The perception of carelessness is in itself a betrayal.
Trusting relationships can be damaged due to causes outside the control of the two parties. If you trust your IT organization to keep your systems working but equipment has been purchased from an unreliable supplier, then repeated equipment failure can cause you to lose trust in the IT organization, despite the best intentions of the IT organization when choosing the supplier. In this situation a truly trustworthy IT organization would solve the problem, either by getting resolution through the supplier or by repairing or replacing the equipment. This situation falls into the category of a mistake, and the trust can be repaired. But repeated problems of this nature are an indication of incompetence, and the trust will be lost.
Trusting relationships can also be damaged due to organizational conflicts in the trusted organization. You may trust a particular individual in your IT organization to always help you with your system problems, and you may have built that trust with many years of a good working relationship. But if a new manager orders the trusted individual to stop “wasting time on support” and to spend time doing something else, then the trust will be lost because of this conflict in prioritization. This loss of trust is not only unfortunate, it’s also demoralizing to the individual who had your trust. When there’s a conflict of interest like this, the individual is being put in a tough position. Whose trust should they violate: their customer’s or their boss’s? There’s not a correct answer, and the best course of action may be to bring the conflict of interest to the attention of the two trusting people, and let them work the conflict out between themselves.
The Necessity of Trust
Some relationships require more trust than others. When two individuals have the same level of knowledge and experience on a subject, then they can easily discuss different approaches to doing projects or solving problems in the subject area. When one of these individuals starts doing a project as a result of the discussion, it’s easy for the other individual to assess progress and to inspect the result of the work while it’s being done. The level of trust required in this relationship is small because both individuals have the same level of knowledge, and communication and prioritization is easy.
As an example, let’s say you’re hiring someone to mow your lawn. You’ve mowed your lawn by yourself many times, you know where the problem areas are, and you know the differences between a good job and a bad job. It’s easy for you to talk about the job with someone new and to get an idea of their competence from the discussion. And it’s easy for you to watch them as they work and see if they’re doing a good job. You can stop them immediately if they deviate from your agreement, and so the level of trust required is small.
On the other hand, let’s consider a situation where you have a medical problem which requires brain surgery. You talk with your surgeon about what needs to be done. The surgeon obviously has a lot more knowledge and experience in this area than you do. You can ask questions, and a good surgeon will do their best to provide answers and to make you feel comfortable that everything possible will be done to ensure a successful outcome.
In this situation, the level of trust required is large. Because you have no way of adequately assessing the surgeon’s knowledge and competence, you judge the surgeon on aspects of behavior that probably have no relationship to competence: bedside manner, ability to explain things simply, how much the surgeon seems to care about your health, how distracted or focused the surgeon seems to be, and the surgeon’s self-confidence. You look for indicators that help you build trust in the surgeon, because in this case trust is all you’ve got.
While I won’t attempt to compare IT to brain surgery, there are similarities in the way that relationships develop between IT people and their customers. In most cases, the customers are dealing from a position of disadvantage: the customers don’t have the same level of knowledge and experience that the IT people do. And because the customers don’t have any real way to know whether IT is doing the best thing for them or making the right decisions, they customers have to rely on trust to a very great degree.
In some cases it’s worse — the customers think they understand IT when in reality they only have a fundamental understanding of some of the technology, and they don’t have any experience with the proper business use of that technology. In this situation the customer still has to rely on trust, but the relationship with IT starts out from a position of distrust. Business use of a technology will often differ from consumer use of the same technology due to the more stringent requirements of the business, and customers often see the additional safety measures as unnecessary. As a result, the IT people have to first educate the customers about the differences before trust can be established.
The Biggest Mistake
The biggest mistake that you can make in any relationship, whether personal or business, is to take trust for granted. Although trust between two parties is seldom a stated objective of any project, trust is essential to the success of every project. A project without trust is like a phone conversation with a bad connection. You can’t quite understand what the other person is saying, and so you keep asking the other person to repeat things. You don’t focus on what you’re trying to communicate — you instead focus on being able to communicate at all. Eventually your level of focus shrinks to short intervals, and you reduce your expectations to just deal with the bare essentials.
It’s the same way in a project without trust. You can’t seem to get the other party to do what you expected and so you start repeating your expectations over and over. You shift your focus from the longer-term aspects of the project to instead deal with short-term project details, and so your conversations focus on tasks instead of strategies. This is the kiss of death for most projects, since it is bad planning and lack of attention to strategy that cause most projects to fail — not the execution of the details.
You can help build trust with your customers by doing things that will give them confidence in your abilities and belief that you are committed to their satisfaction. You can build trust with your vendors by giving them a consistent set of requirements and by respecting their ability to deliver what you’ve asked for.
Trust is often an unspoken topic in most relationships, but it’s the silent foundation upon which all relationships are built. If you don’t believe that you have a mutually trusting relationship with your customers or with your vendors, then ask yourself why. What problems are being caused by lack of trust? What can you do to establish or reestablish trust? Your future success depends on the answers.
[For more on the topic of trust, and for specific recommendations on how to build trust in the IT/customer relationship, see my book, “Boiling the IT Frog.”]