Trust is vital.

Judith Curry’s blog Climate Etc. is always a great read. Last night I happened to read her July 17th post, entitled On the role of trust in climate communication. A lot of other people have been reading it as well! As of this writing, it had 396 comments. By the time you get there, it may well have many more. This is signature Curry; she’s running an e-salon, in the Wikipedia sense of the word: “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation.”

If you read some of her original post, and then tackle the comment stream (a daunting task), two thoughts come to mind. First, many parts of the comment string might appear to be a trust-free zone. Little if any evidence of trust to be had, at least on the surface. By contrast – and this is the second point – Judith herself models trust. In each post, she puts a topic out there – flies off the trapeze as it were – confident that her readers will “catch” her; that is, they’ll pick up the topic and run with it.

Which brings us to the title of this post.

The idea that trust is vital is not original with me. It’s the starting point for a book I read 20-25 years ago, entitled Taking Charge: a Practical Guide for Leaders, by Perry M. Smith, and published by the National Defense University.

Why remember this line for so many years? Because when I read this sentence I thought I knew what the author was saying. My first reaction was: of course! “If I want to be a leader I have to be trustworthy.”

But Smith had a different spin. He went on to explain that it was vital for a leader to trust those people under his/her command (remember, we’re talking the military here, although Perry would go onto write another edition of his book for the civilian context). The leader’s role was to delegate, express confidence in those following through. And that confidence couldn’t be a mere pose. It had to be genuine.

In other words, when we think of trust, we perhaps ought to see it more as something we freely give than something that we demand.

Baseball managers know this. When you send that pinch hitter up to the plate, you’re not signaling an act of desperation. You’re signaling confidence and trust in the batter. He or she will feed off that energy. Fail to show that trust? The batter will struggle. The same applies to coaching teams in all sports.

You and I model trust every day. When we place an order in that fast-food restaurant, we’re demonstrating absolute trust in a teenage kid we don’t know from Adam that what is provided will be not just enjoyable but safe to eat. As pedestrians, when we step into the intersection with the light we’re trusting total strangers, those oncoming drivers in the cross-direction, to slow down and come to a stop, even if they’re talking on the cellphone or disciplining the kids in the back seat. When we’re drinking from the water faucet, we’re trusting the city and that same Environmental Protection Agency we might think is the devil incarnate when it comes to the climate change issue to guarantee that tap water is potable. Working in a high-rise building? You’re trusting the architects, the engineers, the construction firm, and the entire regulatory framework they work in to make that structure safe.

You can supply many more examples. Take time to think of a few. You and I get through our ordinary day solely because those people around us are highly trustworthy. And so are we in turn!

Now you may say that trust should be withheld until it’s earned. But again, going back to those day-to-day examples, that’s not how it works. In fact, Jesus had something to say about this. People may disagree about who he is or was, but everyone seems to accept he had great insight into human character. And he said that we judge people according to the flaws in our own make-up…that we are quick to see the speck in someone else’s eye only when we have a beam or a log in our own. Do we think others lie? That’s because we’re prone to shade the truth ourselves. Do we think they’re superficial? That’s because we tend to be shallow. Do they harbor jealousy? Well, how about that…so do we. Do we distrust others? Deep down, we don’t think they should trust us.

Trust in others is not a physical, immutable constant. We can develop that trust, and become more trustworthy ourselves. Google “trust building exercises” and a universe of websites comes up.

Fact is, we don’t need those exercises. When you think about it, every day of living on the real world is a trust exercise. Interdependence is the rule. Even when it comes to climate change and similar controversial topics.

[If you read Perry Smith’s book carefully, you’ll find that he’s not saying everyone is trustworthy in every role. He’s saying if you can’t trust someone in your command, it’s your job as leader to move him or her into some role where he/she can be trustworthy once again. However, before leaping to the idea that one participant or another in the climate change discussion is not to be trusted, keep in mind that Smith saw this as quite the exception rather than the rule. The military could not function were it otherwise.]

What about trust in our leaders? Do we trust those hammering out a resolution to the debt ceiling? How about Rupert Murdoch? He might not seem particularly trustworthy this morning. So sometimes, when it comes to our leaders, our knee-jerk reaction is to withhold trust. But the fact of the matter is…it’s less a matter of their being untrustworthy and more of a matter of the stakes being high, and the visibility of their every action as well. Leaders in politics, in business, in science, in every walk of life are held to a higher standard…in the very circumstances where the temptation to cut corners is greater. In most cases, they didn’t reach their station by untrustworthy means. Most such folks are weeded out very quickly. Fact is, as we go through life and are handed more responsibility, we come under sharper scrutiny. We train ourselves to be more trustworthy. Failures and breakdowns are more a sign of the difficulty than of nefarious intent.

In closing, let’s come back to another way Judith Curry and her readers model trust. She trusts her readers to riff on her individual posts. But she also appears to believe that the aggregated effect of such a broad dialog, extended over many months, is the buildup of trust across the community of commenters and participants. The comment string is frank, often disputatious. But even there, trust is on display. Commenters know that they can be blunt, even fractious today and still be welcomed back tomorrow.


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