A Taxonomy of Trust

A couple of years back, one of my team members wrote a job that caused load on one of our live site databases to spike. When the problem was traced back to him, he laughed, looked into it, and fixed the problem. OK, no biggie, everyone makes mistakes, we knew not to do that again and moved on with our lives.

Except it didn’t quite work out that way. The problem wasn’t the technical misjudgment (we all do that), it was the lighthearted air of unconcern with which he greeted the news of impending doom. Why was this such a big deal?

A Taxonomy of Trust

Let’s back up a little bit. There are many different kinds of trust:

  • Honesty

You believe that someone will tell you the truth, always, even if personally embarrassing. She may turn out to be wrong, but you’ll give her the benefit of the doubt because you trust that she’s telling you the whole truth as she understands it. Once this trust is lost, it’s almost impossible to regain, which is one reason why the habit of calling in sick to get a free vacation day is so pernicious – doubt of honesty in one sphere quickly spills over to others.

  • Ability

You’re willing to depend on someone else’s technical skills. Coding, project management, team building, recruiting, etc. – whether delegating to a direct report or relying on a peer to get something done, being able to trust in their ability to get the work done is a minimum basic requirement. This kind of trust needs to be built up over time, and can be recovered after a loss – but it takes a significant amount of time, and a willingness to re-evaluate.

  • Responsibility / Follow-through

It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to delegate a responsibility – and then forget about it, secure in the knowledge that it’ll get done. People who’ve proven themselves in this way are your go-to people, the ones you rely upon, and ultimately look for ways to advance. Not all responsibilities are created equal, of course, and loss of trust on a big responsibility can be career-damaging, while failure to follow through on something small will usually be no more than a minor annoyance.

  • Discretion

In my experience, most people like to over-share. We have a deep-seated need to tell other people juicy tidbits. Some people are vaults, others sieves, and once you’ve lost your trust in someone’s ability to keep a secret, you’re unlikely to ever share something with them unnecessarily again.

  • Loyalty

People move between projects, teams, and (of course) jobs. Trusting in a team member’s loyalty isn’t a demand that they’ll never leave your team or company, but rather an expectation that they’ll do so responsibly. Likewise, trusting a manager to be loyal is believing that she’ll fight for you, and won’t throw you under the bus when convenient. Most industries are small, and job hopping, leaving people in the lurch, and betrayal of co-workers will come back to haunt you.

  • Judgment

There are many kinds of judgment, from being able to make good technical decisions, to knowing how to handle a crisis situation, or when to take a business risk, or determine what kind of candidate would make a good hire. Being able to trust someone else’s judgment allows you to delegate a responsibility fully – yes, you may still need to provide oversight, but you can give them decision-making authority (which is, in turn, one of the most dramatic demonstrations of trust that exists). Once lost, regaining this trust is a long, lonely road.

  • Moral Judgment

I separate this out from “judgment” because skills-based judgment is orthogonal to a sense of ethics. As an example, you may trust your lawyer to give you correct legal advice, and to accurately guide you through various technical legal decisions – but her role isn’t typically to provide moral guidance. A CEO may have extremely strong business judgment, but no ethics – and there are plenty of people with hearts of gold and not a shred of sense. There are a very few people in our lives we depend on for moral guidance, and they fill such a special place that their importance can hardly be overstated. Maybe it’s a parent, or a teacher, a friend, a religious leader – but once this trust has been betrayed, it can never be regained.

  • Motives

Much can be forgiven if you trust someone else’s motives. If you believe that someone’s acting in good faith, then you’ll be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, even if you disagree with just about any other aspect of her actions. When you start to doubt someone’s motives, even the most innocuous of actions takes on a nefarious double meaning.

  • Goals

One of the major tasks of any CEO, or manager, is to make sure that everyone’s goals are aligned. If everyone is working toward the same set of goals, then you can rely on individual creativity and ability to help the team succeed. You can give people the freedom to take risks or experiment outside the box, and trust that bad ideas were honest mistakes, not good ideas in the service of the wrong goals. If people have different goals, then they may have good judgment, strong ability, great motives… but honestly end up wasting time or acting at cross-purposes with the rest of the group.

This is trust in one’s own ability to succeed. Someone with self-efficacy believes in her ability get things done, whereas someone without has low self-confidence and is constantly doubting herself. Self-efficacy can be increased through practice, and of course self-esteem can sometimes be demolished by an ill-chosen word.

So, back to the team member who caused the database load to spike. The technical mistake was unfortunate, but the demonstration of a complete lack of concern led to a loss of trust that his goals were the same as the rest of the team’s. Indeed, when we discussed it afterwards, he didn’t understand why it was important that his goals align with the company’s – weren’t his actions the most important thing?

Giant Fighting Robots

MechWarrior 2 was released in 1995 and became an instant bestseller, spawning several hugely popular sequels, and having a major impact on the video game culture of the time (as well as Activision’s bottom line). It almost never happened, though. During development, the team wasn’t able to get extended memory to work (oh, DOS), and so weren’t able to have more than one mech on screen at a time. This was a catastrophic problem, of course, and the CEO decided to pull the plug. The team was told to stop work, and were reassigned to other projects.

The CEO then left for a week-long vacation.

During that time, several team members decided to keep working at the problem. They believed they’d be fired for ignoring the CEO’s orders if they weren’t able to figure it out. Literally an hour before the CEO returned the following Monday morning, they were able to get the code working, and saw three mechs come up on screen. They showed the CEO, and he reinstated the project. He trusted their motives and goals, and understood that they’d taken a personal risk for a group reward. They had trusted his motives and judgment, and were rewarded for that trust (and their hard work).

A final note

Building a strong team is about finding people you can trust, and who can trust each other. Likewise, demonstrating through your actions that you can be trusted – to your boss, direct reports, business partners, customers, etc. – is critical to your success. It’s also self-reinforcing, as a high trust community develops an immune system, protecting those who can be trusted, ejecting those who can’t. In his 2001 bestseller Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam discusses the role of trust in a community. Trust reduces friction and cost, and greatly increases the efficiency of a community. In a company, it dramatically improves productivity. It makes people happier. It’s the opposite of Dilbert and The Office. It’s the kind of place you want to work.

2 thoughts on “A Taxonomy of Trust

  1. I’m confused, what do you mean by company goals? You mean the goals of the person who says “this is what our company goals are?” That would be the CEO (at least in the example), right?

    I’ve laughed off some serious, embarrassing problems before. I wouldn’t trust anyone who wouldn’t admit to having spilled coffee on The Big Red Button at least once. You laugh it off because it’s a mistake that’s beneath your abilities, caused by a lapse in judgement, that nearly brings the house down on everyone’s heads. People who can’t laugh that kind of thing off end up sprinting through a plate glass window on the 13th floor.

    The way you described it, Mechwarrior 2 was born to fruition by people in love with the product, not the company. I really, really doubt that they finished it on their own time because they wanted the company to be successful. Being able to work on more of the same might have been a factor, but I find it really hard to believe that any sane person would put in that much unpaid overtime unless either their job was on the line, they really enjoyed what they were doing, or just wanted to get it done.

  2. As mentioned, the problem wasn’t that he spilled coffee on the big red button – rather, that he didn’t seem to care. Perhaps I described it poorly, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that a sense of humor in crisis is a negative characteristic. However, when you’re in a hole, the best idea is to stop digging. And when you’ve screwed up, the best approach is to take responsibility, and look for a way to move forward – not to minimize the damage you’ve caused.

    The people who built MW2 cared about it – I can’t speak for their feelings toward the company (Activision isn’t particularly warm and cuddly), but they knew they could trust the leadership not to punish them just for the sake of it.

    Along these lines, the video game in general is mostly built of people who care deeply about their projects, and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it done (which is a problem – long-term deathmarches are common). I think it’s fair to say there’s a healthy amount of cynicism about the companies and publishers involved, but that’s a post for another day.

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