Trust Me

“Trust me.” It is a phrase most of us have used and one we’ve likely heard from others. When we tell someone to trust us we are asking them to make a wager that we will prove ourselves trustworthy. When we put our trust in others, we are doing the same – betting that they will demonstrate themselves worthy of our trust.

Many of us, however, have also made some bad bets. We’ve put our trust in others only to see them act in ways that are anything but trustworthy. When the bet was small, the damage from a breach of trust was usually small as well. When the bet was big, well, that’s when we may have experienced significant harm – financially, emotionally, even physical harm. If we are honest, a lot of us will admit that there have been times when we ourselves have betrayed the trust of others.

While deconstructing trust might seem a bit like “dancing about architecture,” there is value in reflecting a bit on what trust is and its relationship to complex undertakings like strategy. We’ll introduce our definition of trust later this week. Let’s start with what trust does to us.

From a research perspective, trust has been examined through the lenses of many academic disciplines – management, organizational behavior, interpersonal development, and others. Some of the most fascinating recent insights are coming from neuroscience. In the U.S. we used to have an anti-drug public awareness television commercial that showed a sizzling pan into which an egg was dropped as the voiceover declared “this is your brain on drugs…” making the point that illegal drugs could “fry” your brain.

Neuroscientists are now able to show us, “this is your brain on trust!”. As it turns out, when we sense that someone is being trustworthy, as well as when we feel we are trusted by others, our brains get an injection of the hormone oxytocin. This is the very same chemical that bonds together mothers and newborns, that melds romantic partners to one another, and that cements other deeply loving relationships. Some even call it the “trust chemical.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? When we say we “love” someone it is nearly synonymous with trust. Those we love most are usually the people in whom we have a high amount of trust. In the best of circumstances that trust is reciprocal. We trust them and they trust us. In some cases that trust may be only one sided - but love is still present. Some parents, for instance, have faced the heartbreaking circumstances in which an adolescent or adult child is no longer trustworthy. The ravages of addiction come to mind. In those instances, only one person in the relationship can be trusted. The child can often still put complete trust in the parent even when the parent’s trust in the child is absent, or at least suspended. Love remains.

Now, in our context of strategy, we are not worried so much about parent-child bonding or romantic relationships emerging. But, we do need to be conscience of the role trust plays in our professional and civic relationships. The good news is that since our brains like oxytocin, our brains also like trust. Most of us are hardwired with a default position of trust. We want to trust people and depending on our past experiences, that we’ve won more trust bets then we’ve lost, we assume that people are trustworthy until they prove themselves otherwise.

This is great news when we are attempting to do something strategic with others and the nature of this agile strategy process we are exploring allows us to test out trust with some “small bets” first. We will be exploring trust more as we progress through this week’s content.

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Introduction to Strategic Doing: An Agile Approach to Strategy

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