Electronic Design

Building Mutual Trust Is Critical In Interdependent Relationships

Ogg, the Cro-Magnon design engineer at the Bison Valley Ax Works, was contacted by an executive recruiter representing the competing Happy Valley Ax Works. One thing led to another, and before long he found himself at breakfast with Urg the Slick, chief engineer at Happy Valley. Rumor had it that Urg was a survivor. Although product development had never been a strength of Happy Valley, Urg seemed to retain his job while the heads of his subordinates were mounted at the top of poles. Ex-Happy Valley engineers grumbled that politics counted more than good engineering. Nevertheless, Ogg now sat across from Urg, gnawing a bone and listening to Urg's pitch.

Urg began, "Ogg, I see great things for you at Happy Valley. We'll start you at a substantial increase in salary and provide a guaranteed bonus. You should be a section manager within six months. Honestly, you're exactly what we need."

Ogg next questioned, "Would it be possible for me to talk to someone who has entered Happy Valley under similar circumstances?"

Urg rolled his eyes and replied, "We have never had anyone of your caliber before. All of your predecessors have been mediocre engineers. Many of them have been let go. Your situation is truly unique."

Ogg paused and asked, "Well, would it be possible then for you to put your offer in writing?"

Urg responded, "Ogg, at Happy Valley we believe that all great relationships are founded on trust. Making written commitments undermines this tradition which has been so important to us." He concluded, "You will just have to trust me on this one."

Whoah! Did you ever notice how the people you are least likely to trust are the most likely to say, "Trust me?" How do we come to trust someone? First, we trust those who have demonstrated by their actions that they are worth trusting. If someone had opportunities to act on personal interest, but instead repeatedly chose to act in our interest, then we trust that person.

Second, when we lack personal experience with particular people, we carefully watch how they behave with others. If they treat other people well, we infer they might do the same to us. Last, we trust people whose incentives are aligned with our own. If an aircraft pilot incurs the same penalty from an airplane crash as the passengers, we expect him or her to be vitally interested in avoiding a crash.

What should you do in a situation where blind faith is risky? First, minimize the consequences of betrayal. For example, break a large task into a series of deliverables. So if there's a problem, it will show up early. Next, try to align your interests. If both of you stand to gain or lose from the same things, selfish behavior isn't a problem as it maximizes the outcome for both parties. Finally, get to know the other party well. What's often viewed as betrayal can result from a simple misunderstanding. The better you know someone, the less likely that this will occur.

Building mutual trust is critical in interdependent relationships because distrust can undermine both productivity and morale. What engineer wants to work on a project with someone untrustworthy? Upon trust, better work environments may be built. And that leads to better communication, fewer misunderstandings, and, ultimately, better quality solutions.

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