Trust is like an echo

(Harry, the CEO of a New York based software company, and Elizabeth, a retired global fund manager, meet for their Saturday morning conversations in Elizabeth’s apartment on Fifth Avenue – or, like today, at the Guggenheim Museum)

Harry entered the building with the same sense of wonder that he had experienced nearly twenty-five years earlier when he had first visited the Guggenheim during a lunch hour and had ended up staying all afternoon in the remarkable building.

Elizabeth had called him earlier in the week and asked him to meet her here for the last day of the Alberto Giacometti Exhibition.

As he stepped beyond the low-ceilinged entrance the rotunda opened out and drew his eye up towards the glass dome seven stories above him. He took one look at the long queue waiting for the elevator and set off up the spiral ramp that gives the building it’s unique shape and atmosphere.

He made good progress and eventually reached the high gallery where he saw Elizabeth standing looking at a sculpture of a tall and elongated figure bent forwards as if walking into the wind.

“Isn’t he beautiful” said Elizabeth, without even looking up at Harry.

“Amazing” said Harry.

“This has always reminded me of my own father. He had that purposeful stride but was always connected to the ground. He was someone who could always be trusted to do what he said – unlike many people I’ve met in my life,” said Elizabeth.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what we were talking about last week. Do you think loyalty is a consequence of trust?” asked Harry, as they started to walk down the white concrete spiral, pausing at sculptures as they went.

“Ah, the trust question,” said Elizabeth as if she had been expecting the topic to come up.

“And why do you think they are connected?” she asked Harry.

“Well if I can’t trust someone how can I show them any loyalty?” said Harry.

“But what does trust men to you?” she asked.

“Trust, is, as you suggested, if you say you’re going to do something and you can be relied upon to do it then you can be trusted,” said Harry.

“So, if a chief executive said that he was going to exploit his workers, and then he did, would you say that he was trustworthy?” said Elizabeth, wandering on to the next exhibit.

“Well he can be relied upon to behave in a particular way, so I suppose he could be said to trustworthy,” said Harry.

“But would you really use such a word to describe such behaviour – a leader who exploits his employees is ‘trustworthy’?” asked Elizabeth.

“No – I don’t suppose I would,” said Harry

“So, if reliability isn’t the singular definition of trust – what do you think is?” asked Elizabeth, moving on to another of Giacometti’s sculptures.

“I think reliability is important but perhaps it also has something to do with having a positive intention towards the other person?” suggested Harry.

“Now we’re getting somewhere. When my husband used to carry out cardiac surgery his patients trusted him because they believed that he cared about their welfare. But trust is more than just reliability and caring – his patients trusted him because of his credibility. He had a series of qualifications from some of the world’s top universities and had a reputation as being one of New York’s top surgeons,” said Elizabeth.

“OK – so trust is a combination of reliability, caring for others’ wellbeing, and credibility” said Harry as he reeled off the constituent elements.

“Even with all those characteristics it’s still not enough to be regarded as being trustworthy – there are a couple of other things missing. Can you think what they might be? asked Elizabeth.

“Geez, I thought reliability was enough – and you’re saying there’s more” said Harry.

“Let me put it this way – is it possible to be trustworthy in one field and untrustworthy in another?” asked Elisabeth.

“Well I suppose credibility is specific to singular activities – for example I don’t know if your husband was a climber but if he wasn’t then I wouldn’t trust him to lead me up El Capitan in Yosemite” said Harry.

“Good,” said Elizabeth.

“Now you never met Tony but he had the most remarkable bedside manner with people – and he made them feel completely safe in his hands. Can you appreciate that?” said Elizabeth.

“Oh, I’ve met plenty doctors and experts in my time who were exceptionally credible in terms of their competence but whose arrogance and ego undermined any semblance of trust – so yes I do see what you mean.” said Harry.

“It certainly connects to the idea of having positive intentions towards other people’s welfare but if it isn’t manifested in one’s behaviour then the extent to which one is trusted is seriously undermined” said Elizabeth, and continued,

“Do you know that doctors who are perceived to be ‘warm’ towards their patients are much less likely to be sued for malpractice than those who simply rely upon their dispassionate competence.” said Elizabeth.

“I can understand that” said Harry.

“Some call it intimacy rather than warmth – but it connects with the idea of a having a positive outlook towards the other person, rather than obvious and pre-dominant self-interest” said Elizabeth.

“Now you said there were another two things that needed to be present for trust to be manifested – so what is the last thing?” asked Harry.

“Quite simple really. I do not need to trust people unless I am making myself vulnerable to them in some way. For example, Tony’s patients staked the ultimate level of vulnerability – their own lives when they trusted him. If I buy a bagel from a deli I make myself vulnerable to them in terms of my health and hygiene – but obviously not to the same level as Tony’s patients.” said Elizabeth.

“A bit like my climbing example – if my guide is holding the other end of the rope that I rely upon to save my life in the event of a fall – then I am required to place a high degree of trust in that other person – and the rope of course” said Harry.

“Absolutely” said Elizabeth as she wandered around another of the remarkable artworks, and mused aloud,

“Trust is a state of mind – not a behaviour – in the absence of vulnerability trust is not required. That’s why so many leaders find it so difficult to delegate – because they don’t want to place their vulnerability in the hands of others – so they do everything themselves.

“Do you think I’m like that? asked Harry.

“No. I genuinely don’t think you are like that. But I’m not so sure about those around you.” she said.

“Are we talking about Bob?” asked Harry.

“I don’t know Bob, but from what you’ve told me he has difficulty making himself vulnerable to others which leads him to try to control and manage everything – even you. Whereas you appear to trust him unequivocally. Am I right?” asked Elizabeth.

“You are correct – I do trust Bob. But I do recognise what you’re saying about him trying to control all variables which leads to more a command and control model of behaviour – although I’ve never thought about that extending to me,” said Harry.

“You see – last week we talked about the need for loyalty to go both ways. But I would argue that trust is the keystone of loyalty – so any absence of trust immediately undermines any sense of loyalty. I’ve always thought about trust in work being a bit like an echo – if you don’t give – you can never get it back,” and with that she wandered off down the spiral and started to give Harry a one-to-one tutorial on the life and works of Giacometti.