- the process of eroding or being eroded by wind, water, or other natural agents. “the problem of soil erosion”
- firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.
Another key component of Leadership Through Integrity is understanding trust. The common definition is that trust is a ‘belief’ however, this is a gross understatement of its true power. Trust is also a value, the foundation of all human existence transcending time and cultural constraints.
A leader must understand that trust cannot only be broken in an instant, it also erodes over time. This may seem obvious however, my experience has proven otherwise. The erosion of trust seems to be accelerating and it will take attention and intentionality to ensure its survival. Trust is represented by the rocks in the image above. Pounding surf break rocks down to sand. Trust is not as solid as it appears and extremely difficult to piece back together.
Ring, Ring: Everytown Hospital nursing station, how may I help you?
Me: I’m calling about a patient that was brought into the emergency room a while ago, not really sure when. Can you please give me some information? I’m really worried. The patient’s last name is Trust, T-R-U-S-T.
Station: Are you family? I can only provide information to family members for privacy purposes.
Me: Yes I am, we are intimately and inseparably connected. Trust has been in my family and a part of me for as long as I can remember. Can you please tell me it’s condition?
Station: I’m really sorry to inform you, Trust is on life support. It’s situation has been in serious decline and the prognosis is not good. You might consider coming down and sitting bedside. Although Trust is unconscious, it can hear you. Talk to it, believe in it, provide words of encouragement, anything might help no matter how big or small. Without care and attention, Trust might not survive. I’m sorry.
Me: Can you hold the phone so it can hear me?
Station: Hang on, , , ok, I’m in the room now… ok, go ahead.
Me: Hi Trust, it’s me, Kevin. I’m sorry I’m not there for you. Please don’t die. I need you, we all need you. Please come back. Life just wouldn’t be the same without you. We all need you to survive. I’ll help you, in every that I can. You are not alone, I promise! Please Trust, I hope you can hear me.
I find it interesting how trust is eroding however, in a weird way, also strengthening at the same time. Trust is being split into two distinct groups, blind and everything else.
Think about this: conventional wisdom dictates not to get into a strangers car, but millions of people do that every day while ride sharing without thinking about safety, insurance, or condition of the vehicle. Planes don’t fall out of the sky, sorry large airplane manufacturer, they do. People trust the food supply even though they have no idea if safety standards were met. Was the refrigeration and storage temperature really within a safe range? Did people really wash their hands or wear gloves?
We trust blindly because the relationship is distant, not seen. Oh sure, I know you see the pilot when boarding a flight, you might even say hello to your ride-share driver but do you really SEE them? This is a tangential relationship at best, one that simply blends into the background. There are family members that I won’t drive with yet somehow, I ‘trust’ ride-share drivers – my life is literally in their hands.
Trust: My Theory of Relativity
Trust is proportional to the proximal relationship of the person, or object, being trusted. Trust is subject to tremendous pressure in close relationships, in contrast, less pressure and abundant distant relationships.
When it comes to people we know, that’s where things get interesting and really strange. I think most people want to believe that trust is inherent and automatic, it’s not. Trust is somewhat fluid. It is an intentional, mostly unspoken act performed by two parties in a relationship. A relationship is defined as two or more people in a social group of some type. This could be in a family, friends, the familiar barista at your favorite coffee shop, any group that interacts with each other on a personal level.
Implicit trust seems to be present in most families, almost automatic (there are exceptions of course). This is most likely due to the fact that the familial relationships are close, for the most part. Trust is first, ‘wait and see what happens’ follows. The opposite is true of the workplace. ‘Wait and see’ comes first before trust. I would argue that work relationships are harder to build and maintain, yet organizationally, very little effort is made to improve and build trust. Most leadership demands trust, it’s not that simple.
I dealt with trust often during my time as a family therapist. I was always fascinated by how people could live with themselves knowing that they were violating their partner’s trust and at the same time, though they were being trustworthy. I can’t go into any details about this due to patient-therapist confidentiality. I can say this, being a therapist really gave me a close look at a very dark side of relationships. It’s no wonder why trust is so easily broken. Trust is subject to a cumulative effect until one day, broken forever. It can be rebuilt, somewhat, but never the same.
I think of an hourglass as a metaphor for trust. New relationship, new hourglass with all of the sand in the top half. Each action will open and close the trap, leaking or stopping the flow of sand to the bottom. Every time trust is broken, a little more sand comes out. There’s no way to put the sand back to the top, it just keeps pouring out. Eventually, all the sand is gone; all trust is gone. Occasionally, through active participation and a lot of work, the hourglass is allowed to be momentarily flipped over, allowing some sand to flow back. This is a very short amount of time, never recovering the lost sand. Once broken, trust doesn’t ever come back to the same level.
This post is not about trust directly; not a lecture on how to build or maintain trustworthiness. Plenty of resources are available with that information. This is about feelings, impact and the power that trust holds over our heads and the destruction that’s left in its wake.
Leadership through Integrity also requires owning one’s actions, taking responsibility and accountability. Admitting doing something wrong not only takes humility, it takes guts.
Using proven techniques, I can teach people and organizations how to build trust; the only effective way to reverse the damage is through honest introspection.
The following is a true story (names changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent). I am not proud of these events and expose myself for the world to see.
This is a story of a colossal leadership failure, my own. This sad story is about much more than trust however, trust was the bedrock of the relationship therefore appropriate as a focal point of this article.
I was working in an organization where trust was scarce. It was actually very hard to find. I am not understating, this was a real problem. It was clear to me on day-one that a lack of trust was present throughout the organization, at all levels endemic and pervasive. I came into the position being a person of integrity and honoring trust as a value. My mistake started when I began losing sight of who I was.
I received orders from a c-level executive, purposely and specifically used the word orders, because that’s what they were. The orders were to have my engineering team perform an impossible task for the wrong reasons. I attempted many times to engage this person in a rational discussion and explained how the task was not possible. There was scope creep, artificial deadlines, moving targets, undefined variables and the list went on. The project was doomed from the beginning.
I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I didn’t follow the orders they would find someone else who would. I reluctantly agreed. The simplified version of this story, I thought I could still be a person of integrity and work with my team to produce the results that were being mandated. I was wrong.
No Holiday Cheer
Christmas was rapidly approaching. Shortly before, I was told the entire project had to be completed by January 1st (or thereabouts). I don’t recall specifically and I need to be honest about this…I just remember the deadline somewhere between Christmas and New Year. Typically this type of work is not done during this time of year. This is usually a time for family and celebration… not so in this case.
My team included some of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with. They were dedicated to their craft, their own integrity and me (sort of) but definitely not the company. The company chewed up and spit them out on multiple occasions by multiple leaders. Somehow, they seemed to trust me. This trust was being built and was still in its infancy. Then the hammer fell, I was told to have the crew work over the holiday break including Christmas Day.
One of my engineers canceled Christmas with his children. Please pause here and re-read that last sentence. They were planning on visiting family in a distant city and could not go because of this mandate. This engineer, like my others, literally worked 18 to 20 hours a day, 4-5 days straight to produce results. Even while they were working, the scope and requirements were changing. Christmas came and went. This particular engineer rescheduled Christmas for a following weekend and, you guessed it, this person had to work again. Christmas was canceled… again!
Story spoiler alert: the project was never finished. It lingered on for a while and then was eventually canceled. This was no fault of my team. This was due to a c-level executive who wanted something done to prove they’re worth to the CEO and to fight back against a rival c-level executive. Absurd and I was complicit.
My failure: I betrayed my team and their trust. They trusted me to protect them. I did for a while until I subconsciously began to protect myself. Before long, I realized that I compromised my principles and my morals. I know they worked past the line of physical and mental exhaustion. They did it for me because I asked them to…and that’s what hurt the most.
From the Heart
T. & G. and the rest of my crew, I own it, I was wrong. I failed you and I failed your families. I am sorry.
Unfortunately, being sorry is not enough to change the lasting impact that this event had on your relationships, families and children. This event had a profound impact on me. It was my biggest leadership failure and I use it as an example when coaching others. This story has pushed be to become an agent of change. I can’t change the past but I can recognize my own failures and work diligently to prevent other leaders from making the same mistakes.
Like a flying fire breathing dragon swooping down on a village, breaking trust will burn everything in its path. It just doesn’t scorch the village, it destroys it. Imagine the survivors of such an attack, stories would be told for generations of the day fire came down from the sky on wings.
For the families and children of my team, I was the fire raining down from the sky. They didn’t even see me coming. They were protected, yet their village was still burned. They will always remember missing Christmas, always remember missing out on their families and traditions.
I wrote this article for all to see, hopefully prompting some thought and discussion. There are many things I could have done differently, many ways I could have changed the outcome of the event, but I didn’t. Thoughtful leaders with integrity think and process their feelings and actions.
Are you responsible for your actions?
Proceed with caution: Be prepared, this activity can and will bring up emotions.
Time for a look deep inside and own your reality. Think, really think about the following questions. Read them out loud:
What was my colossal leadership failure?
What was my worst example of breaking someone’s trust?
Change is possible, self-reflection is a good place to start. Now that you have named your failures, develop a deeper understanding with this set of questions:
How did I let ________ happen?
Why did I let this _________happen?
What is the life lesson that ________ is teaching me?
I welcome discussion on this topic.