Overcoming the Fear of Exploitation

The most elevating human emotion is the feeling of being trusted. The most undermining is the feeling of being exploited. Managing the tension between these two emotions, the feeling of being trusted and the fear of exploitation, underrated as business performance drivers, is key to inspirational leadership. The greatest emotional gift you can give someone (other than love) is the feeling of being trusted. When you give people the gift of trust they generally live up to it because we are all wired not to disappoint those who put their faith in us. It should then be a no-brainer for leaders to trust the people they lead: Trusting others inspires their loyalty, generosity, reliability and super-productivity. So why then do so many leaders control, micro-manage and second-guess their people instead of trusting them? There are three fears responsible for our reluctance to trust:
  1. The fear of being exploited holds us back from trusting and letting go of control.
  2. The fear of failure: Even though in financial investments we understand how to spread and hedge our risks. In the arena of human investments we expect a 100% success rate.
  3. The fear of the consequences from our supervisors if our subordinates mess up.
The fear of exploitation, always assuming possible bad intention on the part of the other, underpins our whole system of contract and liability. Even the popular prenuptial agreement between two people who profess undying love and respect for one another is designed to protect each of the parties from exploitation by the other. The irony is that just as trust encourages integrity, so the converse is true as well. When we treat people as though we mistrust them, they feel less compelled to live up to higher standards of integrity. This leads us to the second fear, the fear of failure and the need to be right in our judgement of people 100% of the time. There will always be the people who exploit our trust. However we gain so much more support, productivity and goodwill from the majority of people who live up to our expectations than we lose from those who do not. Anyone managing a portfolio of risk, whether debt risk or equity risk, knows that a certain percentage of failure is a part of a well managed portfolio. Zero failure means zero risk, and zero risk means zero upside. The same applies when we invest in people: We invest our trust in people and some people will let us down. If we never ever experience disappointment, we haven't truly trusted enough. It is of course important that our trust is not naive or reckless. Stephen M.R.Covey and Greg Link talk of Smart Trust as trust that is not naive. When we have reason to believe (because of past experience or known facts) that an individual is unworthy of our trust, we shouldn't risk our trust with them. However, absent such misgivings, we have so much unexplored human potential to gain from trusting the people with whom we interact, why would we deprive ourselves of it? The fear of consequences from supervisors in the event of failure, is a frequent cause of mistrust of subordinates within organizations. Both trust and mistrust have a chain effect: When supervisors mistrust their subordinates by micromanaging them and leading them with fear and culpability rather than with trust and accountability, it is unlikely those individuals will in turn lead their teams differently. Culture is infectious; both good culture and bad culture. So what happens when you take a risk and trust people? Consider the banking industry, possibly the most regulated industry in the private sector. The banking industry is regulated not only by governmental agencies but also by banks' own legal departments whose contractual requirements for every deal become more and more onerous each year. Nobel prize winner, Muhammad Yunus tried it. From Dr. Yunus' personal loan of small amounts of money to destitute basketweavers in Bangladesh in the mid-70s, the Grameen Bank has advanced to the forefront of a burgeoning world movement toward eradicating poverty through microlending. Replicas of the Grameen Bank model operate in more than 100 countries worldwide. By trusting poor entrepreneurs with loans free of the bureaucratic and regulatory nightmares usually associated with the banking industry, the Grameen Bank gets a 98% payback rate compared to an international average of about 88% for small business loans.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. Ernest Hemingway

...in fact the ONLY way you can find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.

And, as I wrote in Lead By Greatness,

Fear and mistrust are the cholesterol that block the arteries of communication,
so taking a chance on people and trusting them, whether in business or in personal relationships, is the only way you will create a sound vehicle of communication facilitating new levels of collaboration, partnership and great accomplishment.

Share this post