Why Trust is Important


Recently, two events have made me reflect on why trust is important. These weren’t unique or exciting events, and they weren’t related. Their close proximity in time made me remember how important trust is and why I should not be carefree with it in my professional life.

And now, folks, it’s time for “Who do you trust!” Hubba, hubba, hubba! Money, money, money! Who do you trust? Me? I’m giving away free money.

– The Joker, Batman

Two Examples

I take public transportation to work. Not out of any sense of environmental friendliness, though that is a bonus, but because it is faster and more economical. The price of both the Metro and bus, without transfers, is less than the cost of parking alone. My travel time is also consistent, regardless of weather. I can even write the occasional post as I travel.

The other day, I was sitting on the bus, waiting for the driver to return from what I can only assume was a bathroom break. We weren’t running late, so I had no worries. Onto the bus came a passenger who, upon looking around, decided not to pay the $.35 fare and just sat down. After that, I watched and everyone else appeared to pay. If I had to pick five people from the riders that evening to be candidates for cheating the system, that passenger would not have been one of them. You can’t judge a book by its cover.

The other example was a joke, but it highlighted a more pressing issue of trust. I was listening to a project team discuss the upcoming expiration of a trial version of a software tool. The process to purchase the licenses was already initiated, but the team didn’t want to loose development time waiting for the process to complete. It was mentioned that the trial version wouldn’t stop working after the expiration date had passed. It was then jokingly asked, Why pay at all? After a few chuckles, the ethics of continuing to use the product after the trial expired was discussed. It was decided that since the only delay in purchasing the product was going to be from bureaucracy and red tape, the product could continue to be used in Development.

Trust at Work

The vendor above trusts their clients, and potential clients, to pay for their software and to only use it as licensed. If you buy two user licenses, they trust you not to install on four desktops. The vendor can’t track it the usage without the addition of support overhead to handle the license keys. Having worked with products that enforce licenses, as both a vendor and a user, I can speak to the productivity lost on both sides. However, the trust involved could easily be taken advantage of by users. In the above situation, a smaller, more cash-strapped, organization may have very well leaned the other way.

How do you determine who is trustworthy? Who embodies truthiness? When you join a company, you trust those you know and work with every day. They may introduce you to people and vouch for them. You can repeat this for several iterations. After a while, you are basing trust on the word of a friend’s friend’s friend’s. How strong is that trust? You can avoid this situation in your personal life, but not in large companies or projects.

Trust in the Enterprise

Now you are placing trust in this Web Services call that just came to your application. You check the digital certificate, see that it came from a valid source, hasn’t been modified from its original form, and the contents match the contract that you established. Everything has been done to enable you to validate and confirm the message. However, that can be compromised. It may take advanced technology or trickery, but there is always the risk that the call that your application just received is phony.

Even worse, what if the call is valid, but made by a rogue person on the other end? If it is from another organization, you have put your trust in that organization to only allow trustworthy, responsible people to work for them. All organizations try and hire trustworthy people. Some organizations go beyond that by locking systems down, but someone has to have a key. There is always a key.

In the meantime, we protect ourselves with better contracts, authentication, and encryption. Oh, and don’t forget trust. Without trust, we would be forced to hide in our homes. Not a pleasant thought, even if you have a Wii.

One thought on “Why Trust is Important

  1. Good examples; really good ones, actually.

    They both highlight the social aspect of trust, which is a more complex form than the simple one-to-one trust one encounters in venues like selling, or romantic relationships.

    I think of trust in three ways:
    1. a deconstructive model of trust–the trust equation. Trust equals (credibility + reliability + intimacy) / self-orientation. Self-orientation, as implied by its solo position in the denominator, is the most powerful.

    2. a trust creation model, that says trust evolves from interactions, and by one party listening carefully to the other, thereby earning the right to offer suggestions, or advice.

    3. a set of principles which govern the dynamics of trust: they are Other-orientation, long-term perspective, transparency, and collaboration. This is the more relevant model for the social examples you raise.

    Trust in social settings operates as kind of a group norm; we approve of those things that are good for society in thelong run, and disapprove of those who do things that are selfishly good. Trust is a social virtue in this sense.

    Anyway, thanks for the good examples. I’ve written two books on trust and a bunch of free articles, if anyone’s interested; http://www.trustedadvisor.com

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