Trust is a system

People are wired to want to trust those with whom they work. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: you’ll probably be around longer if you can make rapid, and reasonably correct, assessments of whether the person next to you is going to attack, support, or be indifferent to you.

From a system dynamics standpoint, if you run an evolutionary system like that long enough, then it ought to play out something like this:

  1. You get used to assessing people for trustworthiness automatically — a background task that you do without thinking consciously.
  2. You get used to most assessments coming back positive.
  3. When one comes back negative — “This person looks like a threat” — or unclear — “I can’t tell whether this person is a threat” — alarms go off. Maybe you can’t tell exactly why, but you have a feeling something’s wrong. Alert levels go up. You start looking for things that are wrong. Soon, you’re analyzing everything.

You can know this, of course — meaning you can predict in advance that that’s going to happen. So if you want to think one step ahead of the systemic behavior, and prevent the other actor from getting to step 3, you can do that.

That’s why it’s particularly surprising to see people take the opposite approach — to not communicate — with the near-certainty that to do so sets off those alarms on all the other actors, particularly when it’s not necessary.

Business examples abound, but imagine a simple domestic one:

  • Let’s say the folks who live next to you are doing a complete remodel of their home, in which all the neighbors will be inconvenienced for months and the surrounding lands and possibly sight lines that have been quiet for decades will be altered.
  • As the person living next door to the construction, what’s your expectation? What happens if instead of proactive communication, you get surprises — new structures rising unexpectedly, contractors on your property, trucks blocking your driveway? You begin to wonder if the guy is actively trying to take advantage of you by giving no warning of anything. Why didn’t he just tell the neighbors what was planned — a nice letter, an email, anything? You begin to suspect an evil plan is afoot. Tensions escalate, and soon everyone is spending time worrying and planning how they’ll respond in the civil court system.
  • Giving the benefit of the doubt to your neighbor (i.e. let’s say he does not actually seek your doom), and assuming he has every right to do what he wants with his property without warning you, we have to nevertheless say your neighbor’s approach is inefficient. Chances are he will spending more time and effort responding to the responses of his neighbors about his remodel, than he would have had he sent the letter telling people what was up. He has failed to instill even a minimal trust in the neighbors. He made himself an apparent threat, probably without intending to. That sense of threat is now hard to dispel.

The lesson for business is more fundamental than the platitude that leaders should communicate more. What’s important is why they should communicate — not to be nice, but because it will save everyone wasted effort spent on distrust that could have been put to useful work somewhere, effort that’s a response to a natural built-in system mechanic that you can know in advance. If you don’t take the simple trust-building steps, you’re going to create distrust where none was necessary. You can know that in advance and prevent it from happening, and you can do that easily.