Change Work April 2014

Don't let me down

Most science fiction on TV and in films is pretty poor.  An exception is Battlestar Galactica which I think is great!  OK, the science part is a bit weak (a lot of inconvenient physics is ignored), but the characters and storytelling are brilliantly done. And there's a scene in season 3 where Admiral Adama is sending the "friendly" Cylon, Sharon, on a critical mission:

Can I ask you something?
How do you know -- how do you really know you can trust me?

I don't. That's what trust is.
Good hunting.

Even if you're not a fan of BSG (if such people exist!) and even if that line isn't entirely original, it's worth remembering nonetheless.  Trusting always carries the risk of being let down.  If there's no risk, then trust isn't required.

The UK public has had its trust tested in recent years: scandals over MPs expenses, manifesto promises broken and, the biggest let-down of all, the banks gambling away all our money - on top of mis-selling insurance to us!  What was our faith in these institutions based on in the first place?

The message from our leaders - in politics, in industry and in commerce - seems to be, "Trust me, I'm highly paid!"

So why not do without trust?  If it's so risky to rely on others then a sensible person should avoid it and be self-sufficient.  But it's not a calculation - it's emotion.

It's lonely if you think everyone's indifferent to you.  It's stressful if you think they're hostile. The opposite of trust is fear.

A characteristic of a tribe is that its members trust each other - to a sufficient extent.  That way they can work together and achieve far more than they could as individuals.  And we seem to have evolved a preference to live like that.  As members of a tribe we get emotional and physical security in return for taking the chance that we might be stabbed in the back - metaphorically or literally. On balance, we're better off taking the risk.

But we don't make our everyday judgements "on balance" - and we certainly don't consider whole populations thriving or declining over evolutionary time.  We judge things on what we want and how we feel right now. And we usually base our choices on our values.

Most people I've asked (and I've asked quite a few) put "trust" high in their list of "what's important to them".  But values are qualified by the beliefs that become associated with them.  So, you might believe that it makes you a better person to always expect the best of others.  Or, you might think, "If you betray me once I can never trust you again."  Then, even though the underlying value is the same, these beliefs lead to very different behaviours.

I once had a client whose partner had let her down in a way that she couldn't forgive or live with.  It wasn't such a bad thing that most people in her situation would have immediately walked out - but it wasn't consistent with the perfect relationship she wanted.  She also had very low self-esteem which may have increased her feelings of vulnerability and so made it harder to trust again.  Whatever the reasons, she believed that the betrayal could never be atoned for.  It was a double bind that she'd created for herself.

Our personal lives are full of situations like this where we are emotionally committed and therefore easily hurt.  But emotion is also a major factor in your working life, as well as in the way you engage with broader society.  You have to accept that your leaders can't always act entirely in your best interests - there are conflicting demands to be reconciled.  But you need to feel that you've been fairly treated, that your interests have been understood and taken into account in reaching a compromise.  And that's an emotional need.  Without it you'll withdraw your trust.

Families, businesses, even whole societies just won't work without trust.