In life, one of the most devastating experiences is to feel like someone close to you has betrayed you. You may think that you can’t trust them anymore and have to cut them out of your life completely. But do you?
Edward, a seasoned Senior Vice President in Silicon Valley, was recruited from a small startup by a multinational corporation looking to build a new competing division. Edward had built out his team in just a few months, including Samuel, a promising young man whom Edward had groomed from his old company. He had envisioned Samuel would be his “Number One,” a loyal apprentice who could help Edward achieve his vision at the new company.
However, as months passed, Edward noticed Samuel acting competitively against him. It showed up in meetings, where Samuel would second guess Edward or pass Edward’s ideas off as his own. Other times Edward would hear coworkers discussing information Edward had told Samuel in confidence.
After a meeting where Samuel clearly and deliberately threw him under the bus in front of other department heads, Edward couldn’t look the other way anymore. He was furious at Samuel’s actions and felt bitter that Samuel would be so ungrateful. Edward felt undermined by his protégé and terrified Samuel might succeed in stealing his job.
“I simply can’t trust him anymore. He’s betrayed me,” Edward lamented to me on the phone shortly after. “Help me figure out how to get rid of him.”
Edward’s feelings of betrayal, and his response to them are common and natural, and they expose a fundamental misunderstanding about the true nature of trust.
Most people think of trust as some objective measure of another person’s ethics or morality. The idea is that you can trust someone who strives to help others, and you can’t trust someone who is willing to hurt others to get what they want.
But consider this; when a bank robber hires a getaway driver, they are trusting that person to help them to get away with a crime literally. Neither the robber or the driver is objectively moral — their trust lies in a more subjective domain. Now consider that same robber’s relationship to the police; should the robber get caught, they can trust that the police will put them in jail. Imagine a scenario where a police officer catches a robber in the act and offers to let them go — the robber may be excited by the prospect of freedom, but they will no doubt hesitate. Why? Because they don’t trust the offer.
What these examples demonstrate is that trust is not an objective measure of morality. It’s not even — as Edward might believe — a measure of how much others support you personally or look out for your interests. Instead, the degree to which you trust someone is the degree to which you believe you can rely on them to behave in a way that you can predict.
When others behave in ways that we don’t like, perhaps undermining us, or breaking some formal or informal agreement, we may call them untrustworthy. However, if we know that they will do this behavior consistently, we could as easily say that we trust that person to break agreements.
This is not mere semantics. Edward’s perspective that Samuel was betraying his trust and needed to be gotten “rid of,” put Edward in the role of victim and placed Samuel in the role of perpetrator. In Edward’s view, Samuel was objectively wrong to behave as he did and deserved to be punished for his bad behavior.
But was Samuel objectively wrong? Perhaps he truly believed that Edward’s vision was wrong for the company. Or maybe he simply was trying to get out from under the shadow of his mentor. What felt like undermining to Edward could, from another perspective, be seen as Samuel speaking his truth.
As Edward and I spoke, I suggested to him that perhaps the real betrayal was not from Samuel’s behavior, but from Edward’s expectations of Samuel. Edward had selected an groomed Samuel to be his apprentice and had specific ideas of what that meant in terms of Samuel’s role. Edward himself had apprenticed to someone at his first tech job, and the degree of loyalty and respect he felt for his mentor had led him to expect the same of Samuel.
It was not Samuel that he couldn’t trust, but rather his expectations of Samuel. He was trying to anticipate Samuel’s behavior but using his past patterns — and not those of his protégé — to make those predictions.
I then challenged Edward: “You said that you cannot trust Samuel, but I’m willing to bet that’s not true. Let’s see if you can list ten things you trust about him.” Edward began listing things — at first sarcastic ones such as, “I can trust him to put his interests first,” and, “I can trust him to gossip,” but then other more sincere ones such as, “I can trust him to work hard,” and, “I can trust him to keep track of details.”
I told Edward that this was the start of a new pattern, and it was one he could draw power from, taking control of his experience. I said there were no “good” or “bad” behaviors on his list. They were all just behaviors, and if he could trust Samuel to repeat them, he could also work with them to create a win-win scenario for both.
I suggested that, if he could trust Samuel to gossip, he could share information with Samuel that he wished to have promoted to the rest of the company, then acknowledge Samuel for getting the word out. Similarly, if he could trust Samuel to put his interests first, he could find ways to get Samuel personally invested in Edward’s ideas, perhaps by getting and incorporating Samuel’s input early and then putting him in charge of making them happen. By recognizing what he truly trusted about Samuel, rather than what he wished he trusted, Edward could regain control of the dynamic and shift his experience from victim to empowered leader.
With this view of trust, you never “lose trust” in anyone, because you never give it to them to caretake in the first place. Instead, you trust everyone to varying degrees based on your ability to predict a pattern. If their pattern of behavior changes, then you can alter how you choose to trust them. If you think you can no longer depend on them to act in ways you like, then you simply shift your trust to match the new pattern. The only time you would honestly feel “distrust” for a person is if you didn’t have any information to go on, to set a repeatable pattern of behavior.
Seeing trust in this way not only allows us to be more accountable to our actions and feelings, it also allows us to be more accepting of those around us, in ways other views of trust don’t. By trusting everyone to follow the patterns they establish, we can look past the behaviors that we might not appreciate and better understand the person underneath. This, in turn, creates a safer environment for people to grow. People don’t expand and improve because we judge them and threaten them; they do it because they feel accepted and inspired to be a better version of themselves.
Of course, if you trust someone to act in ways you don’t like, you can always choose to stop interacting with them. But when you do, it’s because their actions are not in alignment with your preferences, not because they are “untrustworthy.” They are always “trustworthy,” just to varying degrees and within various domains. There’s no “good” or “bad,” simply where they fall on the spectrum of predictable behavior.
This week, take a moment to think about people you trust and “distrust.” How does “distrusting” a particular person put you in a position of weakness? Now, think about all the places you can trust that person, even if the patterns of their behavior are counter to those you would prefer. With this point of view, how does your perception of the person change? The next time you encounter them, notice if your behavior towards them shifts, based on this new understanding of trust.
“Trust is very hard if you don’t know what you’re trusting.” — Marianne Williamson, American author on spirituality. (1952 -)