The Psychology of Workplace Relationships: Honestly, I Want to Trust You, But I Must Verify

A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts. –Harold MacMillan

At some point in life, everybody has been faced with the question whether to trust or not to trust. As warned by Pink in her latest song “Try”, sometimes it is better to never ask why. However, there are times when we must engage in the action of trusting, but verifying or as often delineated in the media: Trust but verify. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have heard that phrase the last few weeks, both in real-life and on television (how about that similarly-named episode of Arrow, eh?).  Not only have I heard this phrase repeatedly, but I have personally felt compelled to act upon it numerous times.

Trust, but verify is a form of advice given which recommends that while a source of information might be considered reliable, one should perform additional “legwork” to verify that such information is truthful or worthy of one’s trust.  The term was a signature phrase made famous by U.S. President Ronald Reagan when discussing U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. In a way, trust but verify is like Carrie Bradshaw’s (Sex in The City) use of the phrase “Frenemy” which refers to either an enemy pretending to be your friend or someone who really is your friend, but is also a social or professional rival.   You know, the way most of your workplace colleagues can be categorized.

When Ronald Reagan used the phrase “Trust, but verify” he was quoting Gorbachev who had been quoting Lenin, on signing the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.  The Russian equivalent or precursor, is:

Доверяй, но проверяй

Doveryay, no proveryay… Trust, but verify

Surely, you have been in meetings where you wonder “is this person bullshitting me? They seem legit but…”  Do you readily believe what your work colleagues or bosses say to you?  Do you find your eye twitching when certain people are telling a story?  Do you often feel that you are in a situation where blind faith just doesn’t suffice?  If so, then your quality of work life may be suffering.  Organizational psychology research has shown that trust, as well as organizational commitment and fulfillment of personal needs play a role in the quality of working life. If there are multiple sides to a story and truthfulness is so subjective to the point it becomes “truthiness” (as popularized by Stephen Colbert), how does our quality of working life remain high?

Trust, can be a funny thing, though.  Not to get overly dramatic, but have you heard of the prisoner’s dilemma? Because betrayal always rewards more than cooperation, all purely rational self-interested prisoners would betray the other, and so the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them both to betray each other.  Have you ever felt that a co-worker had thrown you or someone else under the bus?  That seems to happen when there is a bit of a workplace witch hunt that occurs when bosses go looking for blame when things (even small ones) go awry?   You know how many times I have heard “who told them to do that?”  But there is one phrase that really gets my “verify” instinct going.   How about when someone starts off a sentence by saying “Honestly…” Really?  If you have to preface your statement by priming me with the word “honestly”, that’s telling me something. Are you saying you weren’t being honest with me before?  But in this sentence you are now being honest with me?  Or perhaps you are just trying to hide the fact that what you are now saying is not true.  Honestly, truth should be the default. You shouldn’t have to declare it.  If you use the word “honestly” you are asking me to verify.  It is as  Nietzsche noted   “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”  What’s even sillier than saying “honestly” is when people ask “Can I be honest with you?”  If I say no, will you just out-right lie to my face then?  This is clearly the ethical equivalent of the classic scene in every Italian mafia movie where the gangster prefaces his statement with, “With all due respect…”.  This is generally followed with something like “You’re a moron”, but somehow the addition of due respect mitigates the obvious disrespectfulness.  If you’re asking me if you can be honest, you’re telling me (a) you’ve been dishonest with me in the past, or (2) you’re about to be dishonest with me.

Another way “trust” might be defined is “having a good knowledge of a person’s character”, which presumes that personal character objectively exists. Or that authenticity exists. In this way, one might even safely trust and rely upon dishonest people who are known as such.  The all too serious and self-important (although hot) actor, Johnny Depp noted:  “Me, I’m dishonest, and you can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest. Honestly, it’s the honest ones you have to watch out for.”

Now, something else to consider in workplace conversations with colleagues and clients alike is when they give you those one-word answers or they claim that they understand your direction/instruction. You can ask someone “are you a smoker” and they might answer “no” even if they have ten cigarettes a week. They will answer that way because the question you asked led them to process it in terms of self-perception and identity. Having ten cigarettes a week may not be someone’s definition of a smoker.  There are times when you give instructions on a project to various team members and you ask “so, do you understand” and they say “yes” and then go on to do the project completely wrong. These are instances where you most definitely engage in the process of Trust, but Verify.

Speaking of team instructions, trust is an essential element of group project work.  There are not many tasks these days in the workplace that do not require complete separation from or reliance on others.  It is important for project managers to understand how trust develops and how trust affects the outcomes of projects.  In this vein, trusting but verifying is actually healthy.  As Ernest Hemmingway noted, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”  Does trusting mean one is gullible? Not really. Gullibility is insensitivity to information. Trusting does not mean blind faith and “nonchalance acceptance”.  Trustful people are in fact more vigilant and prudent in processing information.   Yes, counter-intuitively, high-trusters are more sensitive to information. And in uncertain social or work situations high-trusters are less likely to form committed relationships than low-trusters. Thus, trusting but verifying can be quite healthy. The Russians and Reagan evidently were on to something.

So, going back to the television show Arrow. Oliver Queen, the green-hooded, conflicted hero has a book that guides who he goes after. If a name is listed in the book “they have failed the city” and must be dealt with accordingly. But as the title of the episode notes, you can trust the book, but you have to verify. The reliability of Oliver’s book of targets is also called into question by Diggle (Oliver’s confidante), as we’re all encouraged to question where the names have actually come from. The question rises as to how many people that Oliver targets will turn out to be undeserving?  Oliver is furthermore challenged when he realizes that his mother, despite his love and trust of her, was complicit in his father’s death. Diggle suggests that blind trust can be dangerous. Although, he wants to trust his mother, Oliver decides to verify. The episode ends with him confronting her, with bow and arrow in hand, as the hooded hero tells her “Moira Queen, You have failed this city”

At the end of it all there are about three different kinds of trust:

  • Competence Trust (trust person B to do a good job because you assume that person has the required knowledge and skills); as with one’s colleagues.
  • Ethical Trust (e.g., A trusts B because A assumes that B will behave according to A’s expectations and will take care of A’s interest); as with Reagan and Gorbachev.
  • Emotional Trust (e.g., you trust person B because you like/love them).  As with Oliver and his mother.

But across all three trust domains, there is the element of verification. So, going forward trust but verify depending on the type of task and relationship.

 “Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


“One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would tell one that would tell one anything.” ― Oscar Wilde

4 replies »

  1. Thank you, again, for a post that makes me think! I have to agree with ‘trust, but verify’. How else would you know whether the person interpreted your instructions how you meant them? I am often surprised at how people ‘hear’ the same statement differently. You think you were clear, but there are as many different realities as there are people.
    There is one useful tool to find out: to ask, what did you hear? Not , did you understand me?


  2. Thank you for the post, Trust is more like a rare currency in today’s workplace , I wanted to comment on the Trust in managing projects, isn’t trust based on communication and proves also it is the accumulation of experiences and maturity of the person, I agree with the statement trust but verify , Evaluate the environment, the players and their behavior , Starting with a good intention will limit our initial bias and provide us a better understanding of the challenges ahead


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