Who do you Trust?

An Essay on The Transformation of Trust in a Multivariate Universe

Trust is a cudgel. It’s not meant to be, or at least it isn’t defined as such. But in a world of hidden agendas, hierarchies, and group-think, “trust” has become a keyword for submission, subservience, and general me-too-ism. Here’s how it works in this non-trusting world:

I say to you, “Can I trust you?” This is a signal requiring agreement and not a request for a thoughtful answer. In fact, the slightest hesitation to blurt back “yes,” is an obvious “no.” This is why there are contracts, which become a written form of trust; a very explicit, truth-or-consequences form. Without this sort of explicitness, trust can’t be a yes or no question, so don’t ask!

Losing the Mutuality of Trust

Trust between two people requires a history of shared experiences. It requires mutuality and time. Furthermore, blanket trust isn’t possible and probably not particularly useful except in the closest relationships. Especially in a business relationship, trust needs to have limitations and for good reasons. Let’s start with the basics.

I’m generally a trusting person, which means that without any reason to think otherwise, I believe in the goodness of human nature, what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called our innate or uncorrupted morals. It’s obviously a debatable point that has raised deep philosophical questions over the ages, but for the sake of simplistic argument, I want to like people and not think ill of them. People who are prone to paranoia come at life from the opposite side of generally distrusting people, a more Hobbesian state of brutishness and misery. If we limit this dichotomy of feelings to business behavior, things start to get confused. Instead of a linear axis with naive faith at one end and anti-social withdrawal at the other, we find people who are able to alternate between trust and paranoia as if personae can be turned on and off like the altered states of quantum mechanics. We’ll call this manipulative trust, our cudgel, our bludgeon, our truncheon.

Reversing the Polarity of Trust

I’ll extend this metaphor to account for manipulative trust and calculate degrees of behavioral effects, which I know is murky, but bear with me. In a purely reactive world, our trust-paranoia axis can be seen as a measure of mood, where each of us has some resting state along the axis and given a stimulus in one direction or the other, our change in mood can be measured like the arc of a thrown object. The object accelerates, reaches peak velocity, and then eventually returns to the resting state. It’s a basic potential vs. kinetic energy formula and it’s obviously overly simplistic, but it gives my metaphorical argument a base line.

Let’s say I’m working on a project with a group of people. These are people I’ve worked with before, which means that there’s some mutuality and trust between and among us. This hypothetical project is like an accelerating object, and if all goes well, we not only achieve a peak velocity, but we’re even able to defy gravity and achieve a sort of escape velocity that launches this project into the altered state known as completion. This trust is focused on work (energy), and the synergy this creates magnifies our individual efforts to create a whole larger than the sum of its parts. One could call this the teamwork effect, but since the idea of teams implies an all-powerful captain, I prefer to think of this ideal state as a kind of natural cooperation.

But since the world is a messy place, even for physics experiments, the ideal state doesn’t necessarily resemble the state of the real world. In other words, stuff happens; and this is the unpredictable quantum nature of life. And just as nature abhors a vacuum, human nature doesn’t exist in a void or even a two-dimensional space. Instead, individual lives are played out on the axis of time, and our progress along this axis is subject to the constant bombardment of external stimuli affecting our senses and or sensitivities.

Within this complex interaction of forces, energies, and emotions exist many subsets of the “real world.” Universities, in their ivory-towered glory, are an obvious example of an idealized subset of the larger world. In my professional persona, I inhabit a more rough-beast-like subset known as the business world. Somehow, these subsets provide an excuse to change the rules of everyday life. In other words, human nature takes on a different energy state when passing from one real-world subset to another, and this is how something as basic as trust can be transformed from a state of mutuality into a blunt object.

Trusting Doublespeak in an Orwellian World

Most generally, business institutions rely on hierarchical organizations to assign responsibility along a chain of command. Ultimate responsibility rests at the top of the org chart, with various divisions of responsibility delegated and spread out into multiple channels beneath. At each layer in this hierarchy, the superior node “trusts” the inferior nodes to fulfill some assigned portion of the larger responsibility. In this hierarchical arrangement, trust loses the idealistic sense of mutuality and is turned into a blunt instrument of subjugation. By the very nature of the org chart, trust becomes a one-way street. The superior node dictates the terms of trust in a process known as the delegation of responsibilities. The inferior nodes are entrusted to deliver, and failure to do so is viewed as a breach of trust. Thus standard business practice alters the nature of trust, turning into a uni-directional force, which is contrary to the very definition of trust!

Where trust in the larger world is built upon interpersonal relationships, trust in the business world is imposed by the nature of hierarchy. From a practical point of view, this allows trust to be used as a productivity tool, as a systematic means for maintaining orderly business processes, and even as a mechanism for team-building (a favorite business metaphor for uniformity). But using trust in these ways is ultimately manipulative and often amounts to a kind of tough love, aka character building, that many find appealing in a macho sort of way.

If George Orwell can create a world where Love is Hate, then why not a world where trust is built on mistrust? We could even call this top-down trust, lacking any sort of mutuality.

Who Do you Trust?

I have observed the phenomenon of top-down trust used to manipulate business outcomes in much the same way parents will use guilt to manipulate children. But it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand the general lack of two-way trust and the pervasiveness of paranoia in acceptable business behavior. This makes better sense when you consider the nature of competition and natural selection; survival of the fittest.

Unfortunately for me, not only am I a trusting sort, but I’m not particularly competitive in most things. These two traits seem to go together and probably account in large measure for my lack of natural business acumen. It doesn’t mean that I’m unable to succeed, just that my way of doing things looks wrong and downright misguided to many of the people I’ve worked with in the business subset of the universe.

I don’t think I can change who I am quite enough to become a conforming individual in the corporate organization. But I do try to understand this somewhat foreign world I’ve been inhabiting for so long. It’s difficult to manage this feat in a non-judgemental way, and yet I do intend to continue to build upon my successes in this world. Do I trust myself with this task? Yes, but only as long as I learn how to trust those around me!