The truth about trust

Too often I am asked about how one goes about building trust or winning someone’s trust. I then proceed to give advice, but to be perfectly truthful; I find it hard to trust anybody outside of my very immediate circle. Nobody knows you and nobody owes you. Andy Grove was famous for his paranoia about the competition – even when Intel had ridiculous market shares of 80%.

You have always been a little suspicious. Maybe you have even known it, but were too afraid to admit to yourself. That little voice inside your head has become a chorus that you can no longer ignore. Management is played by a set of rules that you are not always privy too. Have you wondered why you don’t get ahead faster, why you don’t get the plum projects or why the new guy seemed to fit in better than you did? You have a sneaky suspicion that some other guy – or gal – who is doing the same job, earns more money than you do.

You may have sought some answers from your manager. Or you may have blamed your inexperience or your gender. You may have some very good friends who share your thoughts and opinions but somehow you still hope you are wrong. I can unfortunately only confirm your fears. That other guy is going to get the leg up. He or she will be promoted even if they don’t really do a better job than you, and even if you have served more time.

Your friends will whinge with you and bemoan the unfairness of the system. You are all wrong and you deserve to be losers. There is an old adage that ‘life is what happens to you while you are making other plans[1]’. And corporate life can be like that too. While you are working, beavering away to deliver on the goals you have been set, other people get promoted around you in seemingly mindless fashion. Before you know it, you are fat, fifty and forgotten.

A coach will not choose weak players for the team just because they deserve an opportunity. The corporate world is not grade school. This is LIFE. It does not owe you a living. People are not kind. People don’t look out for you. We are not working towards a common goal. Resources are not there to share. Realising it is a human jungle is a good start to being able to survive. Flowers are not colourful and pretty because the world is a beautiful place – they are pretty because they need to attract insects that can distribute their pollen across the paddock.

Beware passion – ‘tis a very unreasonable emotion. Beware beauty. Beware kindness. Beware advice freely given. I am not just making this up to be interesting. The Stoics believed that the virtuous life is free of all passions, which are intrinsically disturbing and harmful to the soul. I am not suggesting man = machine; this approach does not preclude appropriate emotive responses conditioned by rational understanding. But I am suggesting that you don’t believe the self-help books or the sitcoms or even the psychiatrist. If a counsellor or psychiatrist (or any type of consultant) was really that good and they could ‘fix’ you, they would be doing themselves out of a job. Why would any sane person do that? I also bet you the people that will be telling you I am wrong are those very same consultants. Surprise, surprise.

I am not suggesting that you can’t stop and smell the roses. Just beware the thorns! I am advocating a healthy dose of cynicism. The famous cynic, Antisthenes says, "I would rather go mad than experience pleasure." The archetypal cynics were the beggars who had questionable personal hygiene, but even cynicism has moved beyond its roots. You don’t have to forego all pleasures to have a healthy level of cynicism.

The modern cynic is a street-smart operator who does not act overtly cynically simply because they don’t want to give away a great advantage. (If people treat you as being naive when you are not, is a powerful position to be in.) Modern cynics think things through; they expect that people are selfish and that their motives are not transparent. They believe it is better to be pleasantly surprised when someone does something good without ulterior motive; rather than be caught off-guard when someone breaks a position of trust. The latter case invariably has dire consequences whereas a pleasant surprise is of no real consequence other than fleeting appreciation.

Wariness will let you stay alive longer. Caution is the first step in the survival process. Without a strong sense of doubt you will fail to question motives. If you don’t understand the motives, you can’t understand the processes and you will not be able to anticipate the outcomes. If you can’t anticipate the outcomes, you cannot be prepared. If you are not prepared, you will end up as corporate road kill. Cynics know the real rules of the road.

[1] John Lennon is commonly thought to have said it first. No original source. Hope you don’t mind John.