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Lessons Learned

You Might Be Confusing Trust With Transparency

"Trust is situational," one CEO explains. "Just because I trust you in one circumstance doesn’t mean I'll trust you in another."

You Might Be Confusing Trust With Transparency
[Photo: VGstockstudio via Shutterstock]

We all want to be trusted. It sounds so simple—and transparency seems like such an obvious way to gain and express it. But the relationship between the two many not be so simple in practice, and it's why some transparency efforts fall short of real trust. Here's what I've learned about how trust operates in the workplace.

"Trust Me" Means "Give Me Autonomy"

When you ask someone, "What type of working relationship do you prefer?" and they reply, "I want to work someplace where I’m trusted," they’re really asking for autonomy and independence. Don’t we all want to control our immediate circumstances? Don't we all want independence over our work—and to be free from micromanagement?

Being transparent about how your company operates isn't quite the same thing as offering your employees genuine independence. That takes arguably more trust—or at least a variety of it that's hard for many leaders to give, for at least two reasons.

1. Trust is situational: Just because I trust you in one circumstance doesn’t mean I'll trust you in another. At work, "trust" over certain responsibilities isn't strictly a question of someone's character, it's also a matter of experience, judgment, and performance.

I may trust a handyman to fix a broken light switch, but that doesn’t mean I’ll trust a jack-of-all-trades to repair an antique grandfather clock. We all have areas of expertise. And within those areas of expertise, we all have both a depth and a range of mastery. Those things are relative from one person to the next, and they change over time. As a result, trust is situational. It depends not simply on the subject but also the complexity or scope of the situation.

2. Trust doesn’t come with a perpetual license: How many times have you learned to trust someone, only to be caught off guard months or even years later when they’ve failed to keep up the same level of performance.

When business demands or other big responsibilities come into play, the chances are high that everyone will lose out when you trust someone with something just once and don't check in periodically to make sure that trust is still warranted.

That doesn't mean being mistrustful, either. It's about having realistic expectations that your company's demands and your trusted employee's skills may change over time. And it's about providing the support you both need in order to succeed. Someone may be completely qualified one year and underwater the next, depending on how quickly the business changes or how fast they adapt.

Where Transparency Comes In

If trust is such a slippery, contingent quality, then transparency must have even sharper limits, right? Not necessarily. It may sound counterintuitive, but even though transparency is no substitute for trust, it can still make trust stronger. For instance, when you extend trust without being transparent about why you're trusting someone and on what basis, your trust is worth less. Any employee you trust with a certain task needs to know how they'll be judged in performing it. They'll subsequently trust you more if you're clear on that from the get-go—and chances are they'll even perform better.

Many of us assume that trust alone begets autonomy, and that autonomy frees us of the responsibility to provide transparency into performance—because we've gone above and beyond, haven't we?—but it's closer the reverse.

Trust isn't just earned when words, actions, and results align, That's the classic definition, but it's insufficient. Without transparency, changing circumstances can have someone performing well one day and drowning the next, with no one the wiser.

Instead, trust is earned when an individual shows consistency between words, actions, and results—and when both they and their manager are transparent about how their performance is being measured.

And that's a shared burden. Like everyone, I want my words to carry weight—the gravity that comes with real trust. But I know I won't simply be trusted blindly in all situations. I realize I have to constantly earn trust by demonstrating a consistency of words, actions, and results, knowing that I'm grading my own performance in the same terms that my colleagues and employees do.

Finally, being trusted doesn’t absolve me—or any leader—from ongoing, transparent communication. In fact, in a final twist of the trust-and-transparency interplay, the deepest kind of trust is pretty much impossible without it.

Andre Durand is an entrepreneur driven by deep convictions to solve fundamental problems on the Internet. He founded Ping Identity, where he serves as chairman and CEO, to provide next-generation identity security to more than 1,500 of the world's most demanding enterprises.

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