It doesn’t take much Effort to Create Trust, just as it doesn’t require much Effort to Destroy it

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Feelings of Trust and Mistrust are human responses and, as such, they are universal. Every institution and individual bears the responsibility for the choice of whether the path they choose leads to the anarchy of Mistrust or the renaissance of Trust.  Almost as important is the need for leaders to understand that Trust is not the trivial “being nice.” Rather it is the foundation that holds things together and enables a more positive tomorrow.

Today’s headlines of the extraordinary events happening around the world vividly demonstrate the critical importance of Trust:  Trust between governments and their people, between institutions and their members, between corporations and their employees and between individuals.

The turbulence in the Middle East has made it dramatically clear that we can identify a common denominator of Mistrust underlying the events and phenomena – events that some people mistakenly characterize as totally unexpected and inexplicable.

The same headlines force us to see that Mistrust is an explosive catalyst and Trust is not simply a relatively benign virtue. The most fundamental priority of leadership and friendship is to achieve and maintain Trust and the most profound threat to any culture is a climate of Mistrust.

In any circumstance or situation and in any relationship where people are paralyzed by fear, any intuitive observer knows that the people are exhausted by their defeats and can no longer generate energy as a sense of caring to make things better.

Whether in the world of business, politics or in the universe of our personal relationships, it doesn’t take much effort to create Trust just as it doesn’t require much effort to destroy it.

In a toxic environment of Mistrust people constantly seek praise and encouragement because they rarely get any and they’re scared.  In business they avoid making any decisions because they’re always frightened of being wrong.  Cynical and fearful people become servant workers, holding fast to the security of orders while deeply resenting the lack of respect and trust that micromanagement demonstrates.

With Trust, people can collaborate and form effective units to achieve goals.  Without Trust, cooperation is impossible.  With Trust, leaders have willing followers.  When people in positions of power are not trusted, subordinates are likely to obey orders but not be motivated to pursue the goals the directives are intended to achieve.  Instead the goals of subordinates are more likely to be the achievement of personal security and the sabotage of the mistrusted leader.

The sense of one’s Trust being betrayed can and does occur to anyone: to people whose efforts to create positive change have been thwarted by those who said, Great! but who then created frustrating barriers; to employees who gave 150% but whose promotions ended decades before they could retire; to spouses who expected their marriage to last until death but whose partner packed up and left; to every kid who expected to grow up with two parents.

The critical first step to being trusted is being seen as someone who can be depended upon to do what they say and to tell the truth in good times and in bad.

Consultants always look for signs among employees as to how things are going.  What would a consultant expect to see in the environment of a dysfunctional, mistrustful atmosphere?

They would see widespread very critical views of management and a culture that embraces negative, malicious gossip.  There is a lot of kissing up to anyone with power, influence or connections.  No one challenges bosses with different views.  There is no sharing.  Instead, people hoard all resources including knowledge as if it were money.  Results are over-promised but under-delivered.  Over elaborate plans and communications are used to prove you are giving your all.  Silent and almost invisible people spew messages of hopelessness and rage to anyone who will listen.  There is divisiveness:  people are split into different camps; “If you’re not with us – you’re against us”.  There is no cooperation because “If I help you, you gain an advantage”.  Poor judgment is excused by widespread finger-pointing at others and by rationalizations.  No one accepts responsibility or the reverse happens and there is an epidemic of micro-managing.  Any constructive suggestion is passionately rejected.  Managers passively await orders and are not, in any sense, leaders.  People are desperate to talk to an outsider and unburden themselves.  No one knows what to do.  People avoid each other, unable or unwilling to look each other in the eye.  Tempers are short.  People view their world through the pessimism of black glasses.  No one talks about the real problems and people blindly hope for better times…

Years ago, at a time when all of the airlines were flooded with red ink, and bankruptcies and mergers were widespread in the industry, Judy was asked to consult to an airline that was famous for lousy service.  Its’ fear-driven employees were mostly praying for the agony of suspense to end.  In one executive’s office a rope was tied in a hangman’s knot and hung where it dominated a large wall.  It seemed to express the despair and sense of betrayal of every employee who was still standing.

Let’s just say it was a powerful clue that all was not going well.

Insecure people are perpetually frightened and on the alert to stop anyone else from grabbing what they see as theirs: their job, status, privileges, authority and most of all power.  While they think they are displaying confidence when they micromanage, rewrite papers, refuse to delegate, reject input from others and insist on always being right, they sow defensiveness, resentment and anger in others with whom they never share decisions but, instead, issue unilateral orders.

Instead of reinforcing a perception of personal strength, their misuse of power paradoxically reveals their personal weakness.  These behaviors inform others that they cannot be trusted.  And they are incapable of Trust. Mistrust reigns:  peers, colleagues and employees of these “leaders” always have one foot out the door.[1]  Such people are often dictators and as such never create followers; they should never be put in management or leadership roles.

Hubris, which is just another name for arrogance is usually the product of motivated ignorance and psychological isolation.  No one who lacks emotional intelligence should ever manage or lead people.  Arrogant people don’t know or respect how much they don’t know because they never leave their comfort zone or invite dissenters into their space.

People who are not confident are frequently preoccupied with the trappings of status as well as their standing on the ladder.  They often ignore people whose standing is too low to be of use to them.  But displaying disinterest in people is not a minor gesture; it is, in fact an expression of contempt. We’ve never met anyone saintly enough to turn the other cheek when they’ve been shown they’re so insignificant they should be ignored.

Any organization, business, society, government or individual that operates through control and fear loses their people’s commitment, engagement, creativity and initiative.  It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude of this psychological and financial loss.












[1] Bardwick, Judith M., “One Foot Out the Door”, AMACOM, NY

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