Trust: Gaining and Losing It

Several years ago, I was using a negotiation exercise, called the disarmament game, as part of a management training program with a small manufacturing company.  The exercise involves two teams trying to win as much money as possible from each other or the bank.

Although the monetary amounts are trivial, the discussions and strategies of the participants are very real and sometimes very uncomfortable.  In the training activity, the president and his HR manager were members of a team that decided to disarm at the beginning, but then reverse directions and attack before the end.  The president  made the HR manager negotiate with the other team even though she didn’t want to because she knew she would be lying.

When I told the other team they had been attacked, they already had their money ready for me to take.  I asked how they knew they would be attacked and one of the managers said, “We knew Charlie would take advantage of us if he had a chance.  That’s the way he is.”

The president was very upset when his managers said they couldn’t trust him.  “When have I ever done anything dishonest or deceitful?”

One man described how the work schedule had been revised unfairly and another referred to the cancellation of a holiday bonus. “But those things happened over two years ago,” he protested.

Although the president thought two years was long enough for them to forget these events and give him another chance, they claimed that it didn’t change his basic nature and they supported their arguments with how he behaved in the activity we just finished. This was a very painful but meaningful learning experience for this president.

Most people probably think two years of total integrity ought to be long enough to establish a reputation of trust, but that has not been my experience. One time as I was helping a married couple, the wife said one of the major problems in their marriage was that she couldn’t  trust her husband. When I talked with the husband, I told him, “Judy says one of the biggest problems is that she can’t trust you.”

He said this was an unfair accusation, “Just ask her to describe a single time when I have ever been dishonest.” So, when I talked with her again, I said, “Dane does not agree that he is dishonest and wants you to identify even one time when he has lied to you.”

Judy described a time when she caught Dane in a lie and concluded by saying, “Ask him about this event and if he doesn’t admit it then he’s lying again.” When I described the incident to Dane, he shook his head in disbelief and said, “That was seven years ago when we were first married and I felt so guilty that I resolved I would never again do or say anything dishonest. And, I’ve lived up to that resolve; I promise you. Can’t she ever forget?” The answer is obviously, no, she didn’t forget. But since this is a real story that they have permitted me to tell, let me add that even though she didn’t forget, she did forgive and they went on to create a strong marriage and a happy family.

Perhaps the most painful proverb regarding trust is that a reputation of trust built over years of honesty can be destroyed by a single act of dishonesty. It is not difficult to lose trust in people, companies, or nations, especially when someone is emotionally hurt. When we have been injured, we want to protect ourselves and not let it happen again.

Building trust does not happen overnight; it is something that takes a long time and many demonstrations. In behavioral science studies where two people are negotiating for a reward, called prisoner’s dilemma studies, if one person acts uncooperative in the beginning, he or she may not be able to regain the other person’s trust even when the experiment lasts as long as two hours and involves dozens of decisions. Having played the disarmament game with thousands of groups, I don’t think  I have ever seen a team re-establish trust in a second game after attacking the first time.

Trust is an important attribute of effective organizations; companies that trust their employees are more profitable and enjoy a competitive advantage over companies where trust is lacking. An excellent illustration of this insight was the low shrinkage rates achieved by a major retail store in Orem, Utah, for an eight year period under the leadership of a very effective store manager, Joe Nelson. While the shrinkage rates for this national chain averaged between 2.0 and 2.3 percent during this eight year period, Joe Nelson’s shrinkage rates were consistently less than 0.2 percent, less than a tenth of the national average. When I asked Joe why he was successful, he described how he established relationships of trust with the employees. Talking about trust and expressing confidence in employees were part of every interaction, including introductions with job applicants, new employee orientation training, and casual conversations during his store walk-arounds. Joe expressed great trust in employees. He knew he could get burned; but he thought it was more important to trust and be trusted.  $

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