“Trust has to be earned” is counterproductive

Last Friday I was at an open space agile conference. Surrounded by Agile Coaches. People doing what I am learning about and practicing for. People responsible for helping agile teams improve.

To help anyone improve means getting them to open up. Not just about anything. About their failures. Their insecurities. Their limitations. That requires trust. Not only trust in their coach, but trust in their team mates as well.

Trust is a two-way street.

It’s grown and lost in small bits with every interaction between people.

That’s why it surprised me to hear one of the agile coaches say that “trust is earned” and provide an example that shook me quite hard.

He talked about a soccer team. That when someone new joined the team, he would be kicked and tackled quite roughly by multiple members of the team. They would do this to test his reactions so they could decide whether he would hold or lose his cool in a game. That they wouldn’t know whether they could trust him unless they did this.

I can understand the line of reasoning behind this. Even if I don’t agree with any of it.

The current team feels that their test tells them something about this new person and may trust him if he reacts appropriately. Unless they are dealing with someone who has no control whatsoever, they will be wrong.


Testing someone like this is a clear signal of distrust. Something which isn’t lost on anyone being subjected to it.

Look at it from the perspective of the new person. You know you are going to be tested (I am sure that the team taken as an example isn’t the only one employing these kinds of tactics). You know your standing with the team you are joining depends on how you handle this hazing (yes it is hazing, like it or not). And you act accordingly. So you grit your teeth, take the kicking and get up. Because you know it is the price you have to pay to get in. And you keep doing it until your position in the team is good enough that you can let go some of the control.

What’s more, this “trust is earned” approach to testing new team members, completely ignores the other side of the equation. The existing members of the team don’t do anything to earn the trust of the person joining the team. You could even say they are doing their utmost to lose it entirely.

Which is exactly what happens. Apart from perhaps a tiny bit of trust in recognition of their attempt to protect the team, any new member treated this way, will not trust any of his new team mates for a long time there after.

Distrust breeds distrust.

The good news is that trust breeds trust. And trustworthiness.

I still remember vividly how I was handed the key and the alarm code to the office on the first day of my employment with a company. Distrustful people will believe the company foolish for doing that. When in fact it was the best move they could make. Unless I had been up to no good from the word “go”, displaying that level of trust in me, made me feel enormously good about the company I joined. And increased my likeliness to act in the interest of that company by factors of magnitude.

When you show someone trust, it tends to be reciprocated and tends to inspire them to act even more trustworthy than they already would have.

I am curious. When it comes to meeting new people, are you more likely to trust them or more likely to distrust them? What would someone need to do to change that initial level of trust / distrust you have for them?

Republished on Medium on 27 May 2017.

One comment on ““Trust has to be earned” is counterproductive
  1. I tend to trust up front. I remember giving this advice to a brand new 2nd Lieutenant, “Trust them until they lie to you, then screw them into the friggin ground.”

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