Provoking thought

In World Peace We Trust

“Good morning! How are you doin’?”

He keeps asking me that. Why? For many weeks now I’ve smiled and nodded, and been saying all is fine. I’m not sure that’s the correct answer. Does he know that something’s off? I mean, it’s not been the best week ever. Two team members have been sick, so we didn’t get that much done. I think we can catch up though. If we push a little bit harder. And I’m worried about that other team member actually. He’s been around, showing up for dailies, and been doing stuff, but not at the same pace as a few months ago. I’m not sure what happened there, maybe he has another side gig that he’s secretly working on? Anyway, whatever it is, I somehow need to figure this out. That’s my job. Also, exposing this type of problem now is probably not a great idea, because in a month or two performance reviews are coming. I’ve been hoping for a raise, so I need to be looking good. Airing my team’s problems right now is not going to help. I’ll raise this later. But, then, if I raise it later and it becomes visible that this has been going on for many months, how is that going to look?

“I’m fine! How are you?”

Everything lives and dies with trust.

For me this is non-negotiable: if I am not trusted or I cannot trust the people I work with, I’m out.

That said, and spoiler alert: trust issues exist everywhere, so expecting a everybody-is-trusting-everybody environment is not realistic, especially at some scale. Scaling trust is hard, which is why we see that the larger the group, the more trust issues exist. That’s human and unavoidable to some degree.

While I doubt many people in my profession would like to admit it, I think the management role for a big part is about fighting the laws of human nature. Or, perhaps more inspirationally: to “leverage” the laws of human nature and “multiply” them towards productive ends. Like, I don’t know, world peace.

I added world peace as a joke, but in a way it’s not. In fact, I think our lack of world peace is the best proof that scaling trust is hard. You don’t start wars with people you trust. You just don’t.

Incidentally, this means that if you and I just talk this through a little bit, and crack this trust nut, I think we’d have a good shot at the Nobel Peace Prize. Just sayin’. I mean, what else are we going to do? Did you have any other plans?

Before we solve this thing, let’s understand what is the cost of not solving it. Yes, another opportunity cost discussion.

Here are some random symptoms that appear in environments with trust issues:

Monitoring systems. Check in every hour so I know you’re still working. Why was your number of commits so low on Friday? Please log your hours and the JIRA ticket you worked on in this spreadsheet. Please ask me before going to the bathroom.

Super strict (company) policies.

Constant second guessing. Slack group chats (or in a previous life: coffee corner conversations) after an all-hands meeting, where people share their most cynical interpretations of what was just shared. Long and exhausting internal monologues when somebody asks you how you are doing.

The need to have contract-style agreements between groups and people, signed in blood.


Putting aside more hand-wavy stuff like “engagement” and “happiness” — the cold, hard management cost of lack of trust is simple: efficiency.

If you and I trust each other, and you’re going to ask me a question, I’m just going to give you an honest answer. No time spent on second guessing, no time spent on monitoring, no time spent on writing and interpreting contracts. Fewer bloody fingers after signing those contracts.

Also: world peace.

So how do we do it? How do we create trust?

I’m not going to squeeze in a trust building lecture. If only because I am by no means an expert. Therefore, I asked, and at least superficially it seems to give a decent answer. However, since this is AI it may be hallucinating the whole thing. Not sure you can really trust it. Once the AIs take over everything, this whole discussion becomes moot anyway, so perhaps it doesn’t matter.

Nevertheless, there’s two things that I tend to focus on myself in building trust:

Understanding drivers. What do you care about? What do I care about?

Being open and vulnerable. Hypothetically: I’m really bad at reading the room, so if you see something happen in a meeting that I don’t, please let me know. I’m highly competitive at all cost, so please hold me back when I go overboard.

Scaling trust is tough, though. If I trust you, and you trust Jane, I can probably trust Jane too, to some degree. However, the fact that Jane trusts Fred is not going to mean much to me. This means that I will probably need to work on my relationship with both Jane and Fred, and this is where things get expensive. Can I really have a relationship with everybody? Realistically not. This is also why world peace is tricky. So let’s postpone solving that until next week. Sorry to disappoint, but get used to it.

What we can do, though, is be intentional about building trust. Who are the key people where building and maintaining trust is particularly valuable? Focus there.

Keeping trust needs reinforcement. Even if you and I started out great: we shared our life stories; we laughed and cried together. This is only going to last for some amount of time. At some point, you will slowly become “one of them” again. Out of sight, out of mind. What are they doing? I don’t know, so probably nothing.

So, we need to keep checking in.

How are you doin’?