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Without a safety net

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Trust is often vehemently demanded at work. But many people find it difficult to do so. Because trust makes you vulnerable. But fear of this is a big mistake. 

"We tell savers that their deposits are safe." On October 5th, 2008, then Chancellor Angela Merkel and her and Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück appeared before the press in the Chancellor's Office and issued a complete guarantee for German savings deposits. After the collapse of the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008, German investors also feared for the safety of their deposits. Many people then wanted to withdraw large sums. The Bundesbank reported that 100- and 200-euro bills were already in short supply. The so-called "bank run" was looming. The historic statement had an effect: people trusted and a complete collapse of the banking system was averted.

Trapeze artists during an artistic performance.

What trust means and why it is so important. © Telekom Picture World

Little trust in managers

According to a recent survey (turn of the year 2021/2022) conducted by the FORSA polling institute on behalf of the TV station RTL, the police, doctors (80 percent each) and universities enjoy a high level of trust (77 percent). By contrast, people have little trust in managers (8 percent) and advertising agencies (3 percent). However, people have a great deal of trust in their own employers (68 percent).

We need trust because it replaces non-existent knowledge. Things that we cannot check ourselves, such as airplanes or trains, can only be used if we trust that they work because others have made sure they do. Developing and giving trust is an important competence for human coexistence.

Susceptible to prejudice

A quick glance at the stranger across from me and our brain assesses whether or not we can trust the person. Scientists at the California Institute of Technology have tested it: Our brain thus develops a precisely defined social value to a certain visual stimulus, a kind of rule of thumb: someone who looks like a friend of mine has better chances with me. And someone who looks like someone who tried to rip me off has no chance with me. This phenomenon has its advantages. According to neurobiologist Henning Beck, our brain works in this way in a particularly energy-saving way and quickly finds its way around. The risk: We are more susceptible to prejudice.

Primal trust from birth

But why do some people find it easier to build trust than others? The Swiss Shaolin monk Shi Xing Mi provides an answer: "Each of us carries two wolves within us. One is called trust, the other distrust." Every day, both would fight with each other, sometimes one would prevail, sometimes the other. But in the end, the wolf that is fed wins.

Trust as a feeling we all know in the form of an original primordial trust present from birth. It is the basis of deep interpersonal relationships and evokes a sense of trust that lasts a lifetime. Resilient people in particular had at least one strong confidant in childhood, according to a study by American developmental psychologist Emmy Werner. Resilient people recognize their own needs, are self-confident, can take responsibility and pursue goals that they evaluate as meaningful.

Trust as instant credit

The traditional understanding of trust is therefore based on knowledge of the other, on established relationships and fixed structures. According to management consultant and author Reinhard K. Sprenger, this understanding is no longer adequate for today's market requirements and the reality of life. Trust, which first has to be earned, tested and tested over a long period of time, is no longer in keeping with the times. Digitalization and a new understanding of work are changing our lives. Everything is becoming faster, more complex, and more volatile. Trust is increasingly being demanded as an "instant loan.

Trust reduces complexity

However, Sprenger postulates that "Trust me!" does not work. Trust cannot be commanded. It is given. Those who solicit trust must first give it themselves and have the courage to make themselves vulnerable in the process.
It is true that in many situations people have the choice whether or not to trust, writes systems theorist Niklas Luhmann. But without any trust, he could not even leave his bed in the morning. Trust reduces complexity. Permanent mistrust costs energy and time. And is therefore not very efficient. And that should make even hardened mistrust cultivators rethink. Reversing the saying attributed to the Russian revolutionary Lenin, it should actually read, "Control is good. Trust is better."

Dangerous as hell: hidden mistrust

Trust requires openness. That sounds like a truism. But let's be honest: Who hasn't withheld important information from the team in meetings because they are afraid of passing it on? Or of someone using someone else's feathers to adorn themselves? And who hasn't held back a critical assessment in order not to disturb the "industrial peace" in the team? Hidden mistrust. No one talks about it.  This is extremely dangerous for organizations. Many change processes, mergers or process optimizations have failed because of a lack of trust, not because of a lack of know-how. Holding on is stability, letting go is stress.

Engine for quick decisions

Yet a culture of trust is more important than ever, especially for companies. Simon Sinek, author of The Infinite Game, says, "Without teams that trust each other, problems in a company will be covered up or ignored." Companies and management behavior must constantly adapt to economic conditions. Fast and efficient action does not fit with management cultures based on extensive sets of rules that emphasize unconditional control.
The solution is not more or faster work, but more trust, which is the engine for faster decisions and actions, warns consultant Sprenger. And recommends trust as a steering mechanism for companies. Jessica Lang, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University Hospital in Aachen, went even further in an article in the Germen magazine “Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung”: "If I were a company boss, I would incorporate trust as a fixed component in my corporate strategy."

Servant leadership

Trust is the basis of good, solid, and sustainable leadership. Sustainable leadership relationships are characterized above all by mutual trust. There is currently a lot of talk about "servant leadership". First and foremost, this involves an attitude of understanding and listening - irrespective of hierarchy and insular knowledge. This is the prerequisite for successful employee leadership. Especially when leading agile teams. There, a pronounced level of trust is the key criterion for joint success.

Scientific studies on which measures can be used to establish trust in the company are hard to find. There is no blueprint for building a culture of trust. Every company has to find its own suitable way with its own experience. 

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