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.

4 comments on “Trust and the Failed State
  • Sometimes the victim could have asked for a piece of infidelity. A little act of catharsis before refixing broken relationships helps.

    Examine the role you played in the betrayal. When you’re smarting from the pain of broken trust, it can be difficult to acknowledge that you played a role in what occurred. Nevertheless, victims sometimes do play a small role in their own betrayal.

    For example, do you convey to your employees or friends or lovers a sense of helplessness or neediness?

    Do you give the impression that you are willing to let the CFO run your business or your friend control your life and make decisions for you?

    Are you reactive?

    Does the CFO avoid talking to you because she’s afraid you’ll go ballistic?

    Conversely, do you come across as so agreeable and accommodating that people believe they can get away with anything around you? Do you try to justify your own actions when you hurt others?

    Many people say that government is necessary because some men cannot be trusted to look after themselves, but anarchists say that government is harmful because no men can be trusted to look after anyone else.

  • Krishna, thanks for the intelligent comment.

    I agree there is absolutely a role for introspection on the part of the injured. After the CFO’s transgression, the CEO must ask himself whether he ever helped enable such action. After the husband cheats, the wife must ask what signs she missed or how she wasn’t meeting his needs. From this reflection can come important learnings.

    However, excessive self-hate can be dangerous, and in the end one’s lessons or introspections don’t affect the moral calculus of the trust-breaking action at hand. No matter how much a pushover the CEO is, this doesn’t make fudging the numbers right. No matter how disengaged the wife may be, this doesn’t make an affair right.

  • More silver lining. I hold these opinions about failure and others might share them:

    If I were looking at someone who failed and then did something successful, thats a hook, I’m immediately interested in their story. I want to know exactly what brought them back from the depths of human defeat.

    I assume employers look at failure as an asset. I assume this only because I’ve never hired anyone myself or owned my own business. But hiring a person who has ‘disgraced’ themselves in some way actually may lead to a better employee. First they don’t want to slip up again because they already tasted failure and it wasn’t sweet. Second the employer is taking a risk by hiring this person, so a certain amount of loyalty is instantly awarded to the second-chance-giver.

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