Active Disengagement

Dr. Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Examples have all come from the world of business.  But the reasons why trust never develops or mistrust replaces trust are the same in every aspect of life.  The dynamics of trust are the same in your personal life or your political judgments as they are in relationships at work.

Where there is mutual trust there is mutual commitment and immense amounts of psychological energy brought to the mission or the relationship.  This is called Actively Engaged and it’s the condition in which the mission, the organization, and the relationship have the very best chance of flourishing.

Where the level of trust is borderline so is commitment.  This condition is called Engaged and when that’s the dominant feeling, commitment is weak and fragile.  The Engaged state allows people to stay in a relationship or a job until either mistrust replaces trust or a better relationship or job comes along.

Where mistrust and Active Disengagement permeates most relationships, there is no commitment to the organization or any relationships.  Instead, most of the time, the largest number of people are looking for ways to harm the organization or the person or people who has injured them.

When people’s behavior reflects their egotism, narcissism, greed, and especially hubris, we don’t trust them.  When their need for power obliterates any possible mutual respect and takes the form of steel bonds of control, barked orders and micro-managing, they are never trusted.  When they break their word and lie, either flagrantly by acts of commission, or more subtly by omission, they will not be trusted.  When people show us no respect or trust in us – we will not trust them.

The absence of trust is not simply the passive that something is missing.  Instead, in the vacuum of trust, mistrust rushes in and fills the void.  Mistrust is dangerous and expensive.  It means people expect the worst and behave in line with that.  Rules to control behavior proliferate and they are inevitably ineffective because only shared values and trust can really govern behavior given the wide range of possibilities of what could happen.  In the face of mistrust, cooperation and teamwork are merely slogans shouted out by executives in the face of increasing narcissism and territoriality.  Mistrust means everyone watches their back and not anyone else’s.

Trust may be the single most critical building block underlying effectiveness.  Without trust “leaders” are impotent because they do not have followers.  And without followers, nothing gets accomplished.  No matter how great the insights and seminal ideas of the leader, without followers nothing will happen.

In every relationship, whether it’s a boss, or a politician, or a friend, partner or spouse, trust resides in the belief that in this relationship there is no duplicity, no manipulation, and no narcissistic ego.  Like many profound things, this is really simple:  trust rests on the belief that the other person and every act are transparent:  This literally means, What you see is all there is. 

 And once there is no trust and mistrust is the norm, it is almost impossible to create or recreate trust.  But “almost impossible” is not the same as absolutely impossible.

The only way anyone can recreate trust and a mutual, grounded relationship, is to be open, especially spontaneously open about how they feel and what they intend to do – and then follow through and do it.  This is always an easy prescription to understand but extremely difficult to do.  The poisons of pride and mistrust, of guilt and remorse, of resentment of the past and desperate hopes for a better future makes it very, very hard to suspend disbelief and accept things at face value.

 But doing the hard work of recreating trust is well worth doing because when mistrust prevails, believe me, the piper will be paid. And rest assured, no matter how many acquiescent smiles may appear on the face of those still feeling betrayed, the payback interest they will demand will be beyond money and can never be paid off.  That’s why mistrust really costs.


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