Trust: The Great Balancing Act
/ Author: Geoff Dueck Thiessen
/ Categories: Guide magazine /
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Trust: The Great Balancing Act

Who to trust, who not to trust, and how to tell the difference—these are questions we face in our work and personal lives. Where do you place yours?

By Geoff Dueck Thiessen, Winnipeg Regional Director

Trust me!” What a phrase. It makes me think of the saying, “If you have to say you’re strong, you aren’t strong.” If someone has to tell me to trust them, doesn’t it imply I might have reason not to?

We live at a time when trust is a fragile concept. Perhaps it always has been. But it’s more visible today, now that we are bombarded with information from all sides, including through social media, which often further erodes trust in each other and our institutions. Additionally, studies show that trust erodes during times of instability, and the last two years have been anything but stable.

If I sit back and ponder trust and how often it comes up in relationships, workplaces, entertainment, religion, and politics, my head is left spinning. We receive so many contradictory messages about trust in all facets of life, including the following:

The Government
•    Trust the government. . . . We live in a safe, civil society and are governed by mostly good people who want the same things that you and I want. And if you don’t like this government, just elect a different one next time.
•    Don’t trust the government. . . .They’re only out to get elected, stay elected, and control us. Didn’t you read George Orwell’s 1984 and pay attention in history class? 

The Medical System
•    Trust the medical system. . . . Doctors, nurses, researchers, and other medical professionals all have extensive training. And we have good safeguards in place to ensure we have some of the best care and medicines in the world.
•    Don’t trust the medical system. . . . Doctors make mistakes, medical science doesn’t look at all possible solutions, and drug companies are motivated by profits.

The Media
•    Trust the media. . . . Journalism is a crucial anchor in a free and democratic society. Journalists put their lives on the line to keep us informed so we can hold our governments and free market economy accountable.
•    Don’t trust the media. . . . No media is free of bias, and we’re naive to take at face value what we read and listen to. The media is selling advertising and only tells us what gets them more clicks. 

The Company/Boss
•    Trust the boss. . . . Most employers are good people. And the company wins when we all win. It’s in their best interest to take care of their workers so that the company can grow and flourish. 
•    Don’t trust the boss. . . . The company only cares about the bottom dollar and will always seek to save money at the expense of the workers. Bosses see us as expendable cogs in the machine—not as people. 

The Union
•    Trust the union. . . . The reps care about the members and want to help. You can call and they will try to get what’s best for you. 
•    Don’t trust the union. . . . The union is in it for the dues and doesn’t care about individual workers. They want to do as little as possible to avoid rocking the boat, keep the money rolling in, and keep expenses low.

Other People
•    Trust people. . . . They generally have good intentions. Our common humanity and belief in civil society will ensure that they don’t betray our trust.
•    Don’t trust people. . . . Humans are guided by their base survival instincts and their dark, wounded unconscious. They care only about themselves. 

We can see kernels of truth in each side of these arguments. And of course, which side is more true will depend on which institution or person we are thinking about.

If we trust too much, we’re accused of being naive sheeple, and we may be taken advantage of. If we don’t trust enough, we may wander into a conspiracy theory quagmire and risk shutting ourselves out from rich interpersonal relationships.
Living in either extreme is risky. Finding a way to balance trust—along with some skepticism—is important to all aspects of our lives.

Let’s think about our workplaces. In my job as a representative, many workplace issues boil down to trust—or a lack thereof. 

•    From a member whose hours have been cut – “Management is trying to push me out and make me quit!”

•    From a bargaining committee member – “Don’t believe the company. They have so much more money than they are letting on.”

•    From an employer – “Why are you interfering in my business? You want to run the company, don’t you?!”

•    From myself, as a representative – “Why did the employer make this decision? What’s their real motive?”

Research shows that workplaces with high levels of internal trust have happier workers and are more successful than those with low levels of trust. According to studies conducted by Paul J. Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, people employed at a high-trust workplace, compared to those employed at low-trust workplace, report

•    106% more energy at work,
•    76% more engagement,
•    74% less stress,
•    66% increased feelings of closeness to their colleagues,
•    60% more enjoyment of their jobs,
•    50% higher productivity,
•    40% less burnout,
•    29% more satisfaction with their lives, and
•    13% fewer sick days.

When we go to work, we trust that our employer has thought about our safety and put in place procedures to keep us safe, has maintained our equipment, and attempts to follow the applicable safety and employment laws. We also trust that they will pay us on time and according to our contract. But we don’t trust completely. 

•    We review equipment before using it to ensure it’s not defective. 
•    We question policies, procedures, or practices that don’t promote safety or follow the law.
•    We check our pay stub to make sure there are no errors in our hours, pay rate, or deductions. 

If we trust too much, we, or someone else, may be injured. Or we may lose money due to accounting errors. But if we don’t trust at all, we will spend our day being suspicious, won’t get our job done, and will make ourselves unhappy.

I’m not suggesting there’s a perfect formula for how to balance trust. I once read an article that said that trust in the world of unions and management cannot rely on the expectation that the other party won’t change their mind or do something we disagree with. 

Rather, to trust, we must focus on intention. If we believe the other party has poor intentions, trust will erode. 

That’s why as a representative, I try to choose my words carefully when getting involved in conflicts around grievances and bargaining. I start with the assumption that there is a mistake or a miscommunication, believing that the other party has good intentions. Sometimes, this doesn’t pan out, but most of the time it does.

While this practice is beneficial, it’s difficult to do. All too often we assume the worst about another person’s intentions when we feel threatened or harmed by them.
We all decide how much we will trust someone or something, and what we will reserve our skepticism for—whether that’s when we’re interacting with others at work, investing our money, or committing to a partner. Trust really is at the centre of almost everything we do. 

Where do you place yours? That’s up to you. But do that with your eyes fully open. 

6 Tips to Guide Your Thoughts on Trust

1. Know yourself and your history. If you’re struggling to trust, or, on the other hand, if you don’t take the energy to engage in critical thinking, reflect on why that is. 
•    What are the stories that are told in your family and cultural background about trust, and how has that influenced you?
•    What personal traumas might be influencing you? 
•    Why is it that you are unwilling to trust some things but are willing to trust others? Is your logic sound and cohesive?

2.    Look for where the trust is. It’s easy to say what you don’t trust. But could it be that when you don’t trust one thing, it’s because you trust something else more? When you find yourself withholding trust, evaluate where you are putting your trust. Given that everybody makes mistakes, and every institution is imperfect, it is inevitable that you will trust something or someone who will at some point let you down.

3.    Watch the inputs. Just like nutrition matters for your body, what you expose you mind to matters. You need to understand the effects of an echo chamber. If you only listen to one perspective, it will get louder and louder and eventually drown out all other perspectives. Be wary of any voice that suggests you surrender complete blind trust to it, and of any voice that says not to trust anything or anyone. Neither extreme is helpful. 

4.    Get curious about expertise and certifications. Why are some opinions more credible than others? You trust various types of professions every day: farmers, engineers, food safety inspectors, lawyers, nurses, doctors, statisticians. What type of education and experience do they have that you do not have? And does the expert making the claim have expertise in that area? For example, a civil engineer is an expert in building science, but not nutritional science. Their voice is applicable when considering how your house is constructed, not what you put in your body.

5.    Read about it. There is much written on this subject. Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers provides an engaging look at your default to trust and the limits to how much you should believe people, without being completely cynical. Reading other people’s ideas about trust will help you gain some distance from your biases.

6.  Know the safeguards and use them. In civil society, people often don’t know about and utilize many safeguards. These safeguards don’t ensure a perfect outcome—and the list isn’t exhaustive—but it’s a start:
•   If you rent, there’s a government body to ensure rent increases are fair, property safety codes are upheld, and evictions are fair.
•   If you’re in prison, ombudsmen and advocacy groups can help.
•   If you’re in a unionized workplace, your union will have appeal processes. Behind them are relevant provincial or federal labour boards to protect your rights.
•   If you’ve had a difficult interaction with police, independent review boards can help you seek redress.
•   If you’ve had a bad medical experience, contact the appropriate professional association that regulates doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.
•   If you’re concerned about the safety of a product, government regulation bodies and consumer advocacy groups can help you.

8 Ways Companies Can Create a High-Trust Workplace

1.    Recognize employees for excellence.
2.    Ensure goals are sufficiently challenging, while being attainable.
3.    Give autonomy to do the task at hand without micromanaging employees.
4.    Provide the opportunity to work on tasks and projects that interest the employee.
5.    Communicate about the company’s goals and direction.
6.    Foster relationships at work between managers and employees.
7.    Provide employees the opportunity to grow and advance.
8.    Leaders should be willing to be vulnerable and ask for help.

Sources: Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today

The Psychology of Trust

Trust is the foundation of all social relationships. It’s key to cooperation and achieving goals as a group. And it involves being vulnerable. 

Companies and cultures with high levels of trust achieve more and are more prosperous. The idea of generalized trust—that in general, people are trustworthy—is linked to increased life satisfaction, better health, and greater intelligence.

When someone trusts us, we receive a rush of oxytocin—a feel-good chemical—in our brain. In various experiments, people who were given an extra dose of oxytocin were also more willing to trust others. 

Humans are hardwired to be trusting. While many people say that they don’t trust strangers, our daily actions prove otherwise. If we didn’t put some trust in strangers, we’d never get into a cab, allow repair people into our home, or go out in public in general. 

Researchers have found that a strong motivation for trust is social norms. We feel that we are supposed to trust others, so we do. 

While trust is key to social cohesion, we aren’t always good at discerning who to trust or not to trust. According to Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell, author of Talking to Strangers, this is because we default to trusting others, so we ignore red flags. We assume that people are transparent, and we think that we have the ability to read others, but we’re actually terrible at spotting liars.

So, should we stop trusting? No. While we will get it wrong sometimes, overall, the cost of not trusting anyone is higher than taking the risk to trust. But we can work to be more discerning. 


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