Trust and the Failed State

Business moves at the speed of trust. – Stephen Covey

Trust is one of the many things, it seems to me, that is best understood and appreciated by experiencing it in its failed state.

Ah, failure. Until you’ve failed as an entrepreneur, it’s hard to appreciate the entrepreneurial process. Until you’ve hired a wrong person, it’s hard to appreciate the importance of hiring the best. Until someone has been reckless with your heart or you with theirs, it’s hard to appreciate the criticalness of fidelity and honesty in romance. And so on. Like most cliches, “You learn more from a failed outcome than a successful one” reveals a terrifying truth.

Until someone has broken your trust, it’s hard to appreciate the essence of being trustworthy yourself to others.

When does trust break down? Sometimes trust is lost over time, a series of small divots adding up. But sometimes trust is lost in a flash: a single, meaningful lapse of judgment. What takes months and years to develop between people can be eroded in a matter of hours.

It’s not just the single lapse of judgment — say, the stressed CFO who unethically fudged the numbers the night before the earnings call, or the husband who had a one-night affair. The actions themselves cause some but not all of the damage.

What proves most damning in the end is the imagination of the injured: the retroactive (“Has employee Joe been fudging the numbers all along?”) and future suspicion of his activities and candor. Once this door of suspicion creaks open, it’s hard for it to close all the way and hard for trust to be established anew. (Though it’s not impossible — I have a couple relationships which have emerged stronger, in the end, after a rupture.)

I’ve let people down before. I’ve done things that have endangered the bond of trust I had with a person. What I’ve learned is that when I proactively and swiftly acknowledge that I fucked up, I can re-build the bond. When the other person finds out second-hand or if I shirk from responsibility for own actions, it’s much harder to repair.

Bottom Line: See the silver lining in failure. When someone breaks your trust, in the short term there’s pain and self-doubt about your own ability to size up character. In the long term there’s an opportunity to learn from the failure, deepen your own capacity be trusted and become wiser still in choosing who to trust in the future.

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