The critical trust question

Consider their intent. [image (c)Tamas Lansbergen]Many years ago I was the manager for a large website when one day, the phone rang.

On the line was “John” the manager for a new product group within the company. Several weeks prior, a critical member of my team, “Roger”, had asked for formal permission to interview for a position on John’s team.

It was the height of the Internet boom, and knowing that I couldn’t easily replace Roger, I reluctantly gave him permission to interview, with one big condition: he had to remain on my team for at least 90 days after they made him an offer. John agreed to my terms.

Now John’s team had just finished interviewing Roger, when my phone rang:  

John: “I’ve decided to make Roger an offer. I need him to start as soon as possible.”

Paul: “Right, in 90 days.”

John: “Paul, that’s not reasonable. I need him to start right away, but I’d be willing to give you two weeks.”

Paul: “No. It’s going to be tough enough to find a replacement for him in 90 days. How am I supposed to run my website?”

John: “I’ll tell you what. I have a contractor who I can lend you until you find someone else.”

Paul: “Is this contractor good?”

John: “Oh yes, he’s very good.”

Paul: “Why don’t you hire him?”

John: “Well, he’s just temporary, and not experienced enough for what I need.”

Paul: “So he isn’t sufficient for your needs, but you’re saying he is for mine? I don’t think so: we already agreed to 90 days and I’m going to stick to that.”

John: “Paul: I was hoping we could work this out between you and I: without getting anyone else involved.”

Paul: “Such as?”

John: “The VP. My product is a very high priority to him, and we’re already behind.”

Paul: “Well if you’re going to go to the VP, that’s up to you.”

John: “Fine, you’ll be hearing from him soon.”

So let’s recap what happened here.  John dealt in bad faith from the beginning, agreeing to my terms initially and then trying to change them later. Then when I wouldn’t take on the risk of using his contractor, he escalated to try to get his way. John was determined to meet his goals, regardless of the impact on me.

Fortunately for me, the VP, citing the original agreement, sided with me. And after hearing about my conversation with John, Roger had second thoughts about working for him. Roger ended up staying with my team.

This brings us to the important, but uncomfortable, question to ask before trusting:

Is trust called for here or am I likely to get “screwed over,” directly or indirectly, by this person?

Thus before asking “how do I build trust?” ask “is trust appropriate in this situation?” Because if you try to proceed with open arms in a case where the other person has no interest in a collaborative, trusting relationship, you could get hurt.

In retrospect, I may have been too trusting of John right from the start. If I could do it again, I would first ask around about John before agreeing to anything, especially given the stakes involved. His reputation may have preceeded him.

And even better, I’d take a page from yesterday’s blog and talk with him over coffee. In all honesty, at the time I would have probably said “I don’t have time,” but then look at what almost happened! This was a situation to handle carefully.

So what do you do if you determine that someone is a threat to you?  When you suspect that there’s a threat, think “caution,” not “trust”: at least until you get more data. Trusting in the wrong situation can lead to harm and bitterness.

If you are interested in learning more about adversarial situations, the book “The 48 Laws of Power” is packed with stories from throughout history about the use (and misuse) of power.

Before I conclude, I need to give an important caveat: it’s easy to misjudge someone else’s actions and think that they are a threat, when actually they aren’t. Such misjudgments can turn potentially collaborative situations into competitive ones. In the words of a wise teacher of mine, “Pay attention.”

Thought questions:

  • Do you tend to trust too quickly, or too slowly?
  • How do you make these decisions?

Paul Konasewich,

© 2007 Paul Konasewich


3 thoughts on “The critical trust question”

  1. Sandra, I think you raise an interesting point. But first of all to clarify, the other manager agreed to the 90 days–in writing–before I gave my OK for the interview. A deal was done, not just in my mind, but in documentation as well. Also for perspective, at the time a 90 day transition was not at all unheard of, especially for mission critical, hard to fill positions.

    Leadership dilemmas call on one to dig deep and look at one’s values. What I’m hearing is that in your team, if you find a request unreasonable, it’s OK to seem to agree at first, and then reneg on that commitment later because you found it unreasonable in the first place. I get concerned about what sorts behavior that will reward, and the impacts of such.

    In this case, the VP decided that it was in the company’s best interest to side with open dealings and honesty, as opposed to saying “it’s OK to be silent at first and then try to reneg later.”

    As he put it “if I OK this, nobody is ever going to give permission to interview again.” This brings up another important point about leadership–word gets around as to what the rules *really* are.

  2. Pingback: » Trust Week 2: Smartly building trust

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    And then there’s the possibility that you were totally out of line to even ask such a thing (90 days is pretty much unheard of) so agreeing to something unreasonable could be seen as something no one would expect him to honor. Maybe talking with him in advance would have shown that to you but I wonder since you don’t indicate in this story you did anything wrong! I have high standards for trust but I try to ask for something people can deliver!

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