Communicate Trust (December 13, 2010) ENGLISH

Enrique Sueiro

Ejecutivos, December 13, 2010

Original Version: Spanish

“I’m to be trusted up to a million gold coins”, said Talleyrand. For Lenin trust was good, but control was even better. Machiavelli questioned whether to be loved or feared and opted for the latter. Is your company trustworthy? Is your boss? Are your co-workers?

Communication and trust are mutually demanding. The German philosopher Robert Spaemann explains that, in his language, to trust someone is a “marvelous periphrasis” of what trust means (sich auf jemanden verlassen = give yourself to someone). He adds that, in a way, it is natural or innate to trust. In order to illustrate that to distrust requires learning, he recalls the story of the father who asks his son to jump from a certain height. The child, scared, resists. Don’t you trust your father? he reproaches. At last, the son makes up his mind, jumps and hurts himself because his father moves aside. Now you know, he instructs: you shouldn’t trust anyone, not even your father.

As a hopeful counterpoint, the University of Munich professor also relates an experience he observed when a youth who had forgotten his student card, asked for a student discount at a Stuttgart theatre. The owner agreed to the reduced charge with the following comment: I don’t know you; therefore I have no reason not to trust you.

A leader knows that his communication begins by listening (audio, ergo communico), that to share information doesn’t weaken him and that to trust makes him vulnerable only in appearance. Trust within an organization is inspired and deserved, not imposed. Frequently, the need to make it explicit reveals a weakness in its application. The insistence on preaching what is not being practiced is a symptom of corporative schizophrenia.

From the perspective of internal communication, in principle, trust manifested by co-workers towards their leader seems more credible than trust bestowed from above. A boss who systematically tells his people that his office doors are open reveals his own short fallings. Or his team already knows this and even so don’t go in, or they ignore it, in any case you don’t demand now what you want to achieve in the future.

I suspect that the same happens to trust as to prestige: either you have it or you don’t have it. If you don’t, you won’t get it by stating it. It is also useless to persist in repeating it, because if I am prestigious or inspire trust, I don’t need to broadcast it. This is even more to the point if I lack those qualities.

It is wise to moderate speech, especially about attitudes or principles that compromise our own actions. If something must be said it should be: short, well thought out and after listening. It is not the same to state that “we are” a united family, a responsible company, etc., as “we aspire to be” or “try to be”. The consultations I receive from executives confirm that internal problems in organizations are often due to –and always aggravated­ by– responding with automatic institutional rhetoric to the honest complaints of the people who are part of it.

Trust in people and organizations 

The German professor underlines the importance of decisions in corporations. Perceiving that something which supposedly benefits the institution is hurting people sets off alarms in sensitive executives. Communication that listens and detects these pathologies helps the executive, who rectifies and is successful with his or her decisions. This is the key moment to apply the successful formula: communication + coherence = trust. This is so much so, that empty rhetoric has consequences. Franz Kafka exposes one of the marks left by his own father: “You, who in my eyes had such prodigious authority, didn’t respect your own orders”.

For Spaemann, trust is strengthened “only when we see that a company voluntarily assumes losses so that we shouldn’t suffer undue damages”. Once destroyed, trust can be restored, but very slowly. Furthermore, “unlike personal trust, which can be restored at any time through a change in attitude in the other person, a reaction of this kind doesn’t exist in the life of institutions”.

Trust that has been lost or never acquired has a surgical solution whose secondary effects only slightly darken a bright future. Ask for forgiveness. If we are guilty, it is the right thing to do. If we are always completely innocent… we should make ourselves look into it.

Communication and trust cannot be improvised. Talleyrand said on political action, “If it’s urgent, it’s already too late”.