Managing in the middle: The truths of trust

By Mike Cook
Management Developer

Can you imagine being a manager and not trusting people? I don’t necessarily mean specific people, I mean people in general.

Unfortunately, I think many managers are unconscious of their biases inthis regard, having “handy stories” justifying behavior that might otherwise be considered paranoid. I
think you know the stories I mean, they usually include some element of “well you can never be too careful,” or “if you want something done right do it yourself.”

Both of these are versions of how to avoid depending on others. These “stories” invisibly undermine accountability in any organization. Put in the simplest terms, no trust equals no accountability.

Let’s take a closer look at trust in a way that opens space for accountability.

Preparing for this article, it occurred to me that for many thoughtful people there are three truths about trust and no common definition.

The three truths are:

If I trust, I can count on being disappointed.

If I do not trust, my life will likely be safe but it will feel more like surviving than thriving.

If I am up to anything of consequence—anything that will really make any difference—then I will need the involvement of others. Therefore, trust is a foregone conclusion: I will trust or I will accomplish very little in this lifetime.

With the above three truths in mind, I would do well to establish a tolerance for disappointment. If this sounds paradoxical to you I empathize. It appears that there is always a paradox to be dealt with where trust is involved, especially if I insist on defining trust as having anything to do with someone other than myself!

In my consulting experience most people I encounter offer their definition of trust in terms of the behaviors of others. In contrast as I read through hundreds of quotes from “fairly famous” people to prepare for this article, a single insight became clear: there is no power in any definition of trust that depends on the behavior of others. None of these “famous people” defined trust as having anything to do with anyone other than themselves.

Consider this: a definition of trust that generates power is a function of my relationship with myself.

Do I have the confidence in myself to deal with whatever comes my way? Can I interact successfully with various personalities? Can I have direct reports who clearly have superior subject knowledge to my own? Can I honor my intentions when interacting with people of differing agendas? And most importantly, can I count on myself to respond and deliver without excuses even when someone has let me down?

As a manager, this perspective on trust gives me reason to think that I can be effective no matter what and no matter who is involved. I say perspective because after reading all those quotes I concluded that trust, like we often say about beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

By adopting this perspective I place the responsibility for trust in my own lap. My power comes from the fact that there never was anything I could do about your behavior except to ask for what I wanted and hold you to account for what you said you would do.

I was blessed to have a manager who operated in this fashion early in my career.

I made mistakes and each time he dealt with the situation gracefully and responsibly. If he had delegated something to me and it did not get done well he always held himself to account for having allowed me the opportunity to either meet his expectations, or let him down.

This is not to say that he did not hold me to account; he did, and from our discussions around my accountabilities I learned from my mistakes. With him there was never any concern for being “thrown under the bus.” We sank or swam together and as an outcome I was able to gain the confidence of other senior managers at a very young age.

His trusting that he could deal with whatever mistake I might make allowed me the freedom to bring the best I had to offer and rapidly learn what worked and what did not.

Of course, like any truly great manager his trust in me cost him in the end; I was promoted and moved on. And of course, he trusted that whoever took my place would eventually be exactly what he needed, until they moved on as well.

Have you trusted yourself to form relationships with people who know you rely on them?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at

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