What happened to good, old fashioned trust?

You have got to be brave (or, as some argue, stupid) to be truly trustful. (Photograph of animal trainer, Kevin Richardson from Fun Division.com.)

A VERY wise man – so wise, in fact, that I married him – taught me that when you trust people, they honour that trust. One of his most convincing lessons in this regard goes as follows:

Approximately 16 years ago, the wise man arrived home from work late one evening and was about to walk his two wildly eager dogs when the bell rang. He opened the door to discover an extremely worried-looking young man (still a teenager, perhaps) standing there.

“Please, mister,” said the youthful stranger, wringing his hands anxiously, “can I wash your car? I need R5 to catch a taxi to get back home to Gugulethu and it is getting dark.”

The wise man’s car however, was not particularly dirty and the dogs were leaping about his feet in excited anticipation. Moreover, he had already stashed the vehicle in the garage, and was disinclined to move it out and gather the necessary items to have it washed (even wise men are sometimes lazy).

So, he did the easy thing: he thrust his hand into a pocket, took out his wallet and opened it – only to find that the lone currency there was a R20 note.

“This is all I have,” he said, handing it to the youngster. “The car does not need cleaning but you can have R5. You will need to walk to the shopping centre, which is 10 minutes away and get some change. I am going out now. You can leave the R15 in the post box.”

You have, no doubt, guessed the outcome of the story. For sure, when the wise man returned home from his walk about an hour later, he found R15 in the post box. Unlike most others (including myself) when we heard the story related later, he was not surprised.

“Put your trust in someone and they will respect it,” he shrugged knowingly and just a little smugly.

I was reminded of the R5 car wash incident recently when I read the results of a poll that was conducted by financial comparison website Justmoney.co.za, which indicate that, by and large, South Africans “trust no one”.

The website asked its users who they trust most: bankers, journalists, politician or no one. A significant 64% responded “no one”.

Justmoney.co.za general manager Gilder cautions against reading too much into the survey: “At face value, the results of the poll would suggest a mistrusting society, but I suppose the results need to be taken with a pinch of salt…the temptation to reply with ‘none of the above’ may have been too much for some people to avoid,” he says.

Does that mean then, that we are more of a flippant populace rather than a distrustful one? Should we find consolation in this? Perhaps, but ominously, the findings of the Justmoney.co.za poll correspond with the results of a more comprehensive study conducted earlier this year by Maritz Research, which found that trust in the workplace across all industries in the US is in worse shape than Benni McCarthy.

The survey, conducted among 2 004 respondents who were employed full time, concluded that “although workplace trust has been dwindling since the Enron, WorldCom and Tyco scandals of the earlier in the decade, threats of layoffs and downsizing have exacerbated the problem”.

Is this the case in South Africa too? Are we a distrustful and cynical nation, and, increasingly so, because of the uncertain economic times we have endured recently? And, if we are more and more distrustful, what impact does this have on productivity, morale and profitability?

Although the organisation has not conducted local research on distrust in the workplace per se, performance improvement company, Achievement Awards – which is the associate partner of Maritz in South Africa – believes that many of the findings of the Maritz survey are mirrored in this country.

“We are finding, for example, that more and more people are leaving companies because they do not trust their superiors. Distrust develops primarily because managers are not delivering on the values of the organisations they represent and/or because companies do not meet their employees expectations in terms of training, empowerment, job satisfaction and the like,” says chief operations officer for Achievement Awards, Barry Coltham. “People join companies with expectations and, because of things they are promised even, they look forward to receiving training and the like, and when, whether due to economical constraints – training is the first thing to be cut when budgets are tight – or for other reasons, this is not forthcoming, seeds of distrust are sown. And, correspondingly, from a customer perspective, organisations tend these days to over promise and under deliver on service and product, which erodes trust among customers.”

The impact of distrust, where there is a lack of consistency and continuity that ensures security and certainty, in an organisation is well documented. Productivity and morale go out the window. Employees spend more time looking for new jobs than working on current projects and, eventually, they vote with their feet and leave. Detailed employee manuals and conditions of employment become necessary to keep staff in check. Employee polygraph tests may even be deemed necessary, as may legal fees to enforce employee contracts. In some cases, costly golden handshakes are required.

In his book, The Healthy Company, business psychologist Robert Rosen points out “trust either feeds on itself and grows, or fades faster and faster until it disappears”.

Senior partner for Cape Town business consultancy, Business Sculptors and a lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s Executive Development division, Roger Stewart words it as follows: “Distrust erodes accountability. It is self-perpetuating. Suspicion wears away working relationships and undermines people’s confidence. When trust is lacking, relationships are characterised by adversarial attitudes: us versus them, or me versus you. Performance is compromised as all energy is directed at compliance and butt-covering, rather than at working together with common purpose.”

Cape Town-based change management specialist and senior executive at Accenture, Ken Robinson though, is reluctant to label South Africans “distrustful”.

“We are, perhaps, a cautious bunch,” he suggests, circumspectly, “which arises from living and working in multi-cultural environments where our frames of reference are so diverse.”

Robinson concedes however, that there is regularly distrust between trade unions and management. And frequently, he says, this is the fault of management: “Problems arise when shop stewards know more about what is happening within the organisation than management. Executives arrive at factories or branches from head office, ill prepared and with poor understanding of what is really going on. That is when people become distrustful.”

What then, is the solution? Should we, as my wise man advocates, idealistically trust and guilelessly believe that what goes around, comes around? I would like to believe it and I know from personal experience now that it is true in many instances but the kicker is, it is not always so. Sometimes trust makes one seem a blithering idiot.

“I think that we need to learn to be more open but that we should remain ever evaluating,” says Robinson. “There’s that old adage that says, 20% of people obey the rules, 20% break them, while 60% do what the majority around them do. Management would fail if it did not set certain parameters to check on employees. But there is also an element of trust that has to exist with the workplace for a business to be effective and for employees to be satisfied.”

(First published on the Management & Leadership page of Business Day in July 2010.)

About Administrator

Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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