April 21, 2024

Trust vs. Trust but Verify

RussianTrust: the belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.

Trust but verify, Доверяй, но проверяй (doveryai, no proveryai) is actually Russian in origin, although it is remembered as President Ronald Reagan’s modus operandi during the last days of the Cold War.

If I operate on trust but verify, do I trust? Exploring the difference between trust and verification can help you stop wasting time and energy in relationships at work and at home.

I see trust as an element of a contract between us. You say you’ll do blah, blah, blah. I take it on faith that you will.

Where can things go awry? Well, you can lie to me and never intend to actually do blah, blah, blah. Your definition of blah, blah, blah and mine might not be the same (and so my expectations are not met). Through compromised memory or simple physical inability, you might not be able to do blah, blah, blah. Or a combination of all three of these situations might arise.

When to trust

My take is that trust requires accurate data. Not filtered data, because my trust is as capricious as my interpretation of the data. When I trust that you will abide by some agreement we’ve made, I’m saying that my history with you allows no room for an interpretation to the contrary. You have always done what you say you’ll do, so my belief is that you will now do what you are telling me you’ll do. The more that pattern repeats, the more trust I have in you.

So there’s an element of predictability in trusting. And that predictability is based on experience. The benefit of trusting is that I don’t have to spend any time or energy for the contract. When I trust, further investment in this experience is unnecessary. I can move on.

Unless you’re playing a game of NIGYYSOB (now I got you, you son of a bitch) with me, and are setting me up, I’m pretty certain you will do what you say.

But what about when I don’t really know you? I don’t have any history with you, and you say “trust me.”

I have a choice:

1.      I can blindly trust you. Depending on what your failure will cost me, it can be more or less difficult to do that.
2.   I can decide that your failure will cost me too much and not trust you (and thus avoid the contract altogether).
3.      I can act like I trust you and measure your progress against my expectations as our contract proceeds.

The last choice is that “trust but verify” mode.

Who can you trust?

I have a catalog of those I can trust and the contexts in which I can do so.

I trust my driver completely, primarily so I can focus on reading him the notes while racing in our car at 100 mph on one-lane gravel roads. It’s a matter of practicality. If I had to continuously verify, I couldn’t maximize my contribution to our team’s success. (Remember this example…it will come up later in this article.)

I trust my lawn service people to make my lawn look good from April through November. I don’t trust them to cut my hair. Context.

I trust my dog to come back when I let him out the door in the morning. Then I watch as he sniffs around the yard, identifying intruders, and I make sure that he’s staying in our yard. Not total trust.

The bottom line for me is assessing the cost of a potential failed trust. Failed trust is the foundation of cons and scams. People are routinely buying into untrustworthy individuals and losing their digital identities, retirement funds, cars, etc. So how important is it that you do what I think we agreed to?

Well, I’m pretty certain I would lose confidence in my driver if he displayed bad judgment while taxiing me around at high rates of speed. So if he broke my trust, I’d be in trust-but-verify mode, at least until I was confident again that I could dump the verify part. As long as he’s doing his job well, it’s in the best interest of our team that I trust him. Otherwise I’m wasting energy verifying.

But most contracts aren’t that life-or-death.

Linda: “Can you have the Smith report to me by Tuesday morning?”

James: “Yes. I will have that report to you by Tuesday morning.”

That’s a pretty clear contract. If Linda trusts James, she will go on her merry way until Tuesday morning and proceed with the rest of the project, report in hand.

If she doesn’t and has the Knower/Judger need to verify, then two things happen. Linda expends a lot of energy and emotion verifying (“How’s that report coming?”) and James feels like he is expected to fail to come through.

If you’re verifying, you’re not trusting

Remember a few paragraphs back when I asked you to remember the level of trust in my rally team? Now I want you to think about how that level of trust could work in your company, team, or possibly even family. I know a lot of us have built-in patterns of verifying. The patterns send the message that verification is needed, and actually permit people to fail. “Why not? I’m gonna get hounded anyway.”

Instead of counting a failed trust as fuel for upping the verification rhetoric, why not take that exercise as your cue not to trust? All the stress comes from “Should I verify? Should I not?” Just trust. Then put the result in your Learner/Researcher databank and reference that when a similar situation arises.

Of course, understanding the reality that things won’t always turn out the way your K/J anticipates is also good for your long-term mental health.

I’m not making a case for or against verifying. I’m suggesting that you take a look at the contract, assign a value to potential failure, and measure that against the cost of verifying.

Additionally, I would have you ask yourself what value there is in getting upset about a failure versus recording it to adjust your trust-o-meter down the road.


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