Can trust be a problem?

March 27, 2015

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

The sports pages are full of the word trust. In a newspaper article today, the Red Sox hitting coach said that the key to hitting was trust, which I translate as meaning trusting oneself or having self-confidence. All the coaches in the NCAA tournament point to trust as the key to their team’s performance. I translate that as trusting one's teammates to be where they are supposed to be, and having confidence that they will do their job. In both cases, the message is that trust is the key to success. Trusting oneself is clearly important. Trusting others develops the relationships that are necessary for a team to be successful.

Family businesses do not start out with issues of trust. On the contrary, one of the reasons that families decide to work together and form a family business is the presence of trust. The number of first generation family businesses that have a family member at the cash register or doing the books (regardless of training) has to be in the high percentages. If you can’t trust your family, who can you trust?

However, trust can also create problems: Family members don’t differentiate between trusting each other in terms of honesty and trusting how they will perform their jobs. Family members can assume, based on that implicit feeling of trust, that everybody will approach or perform a given task the same way, or bring the same degree of enthusiasm/passion and/or skill to the job/business. The problem is that the issue of trust extends to the issue of expectations. When family members do not live up to the expectations of other family members, disappointment can set in; and the consequence can be the loss of trust. When that begins to happen, there is a slow decline into family tension and conflict. Expectations and/or disappointment require communication. Family members can disagree with one another about lots of things, but those disagreements may not have anything to do with trust.

When working with family members who are in conflict, I frequently ask them two questions. Would you trust that family member--your son, brother, sister, father, mother--with the safe keeping of your children or your money? Would you trust the same members to do Task A right?

The answer I almost always get is yes to the first and no to the second. Now meaningful dialogue can begin.