Sustainable Pace

August 21st, 2021

Vertrauen führt (Reinhard K. Sprenger, 2002) Leading with trust

Reinhard K. Sprenger is a german author of several bestsellers on management and leadership. In "Vertrauen führt" (roughly "Leading with trust") he highlights that trust is a key element in successful organisations and leadership.

What is trust, and why is it important?

Basically, trust is a conscious decision to not control another person, but expecting the person to act with competence, integrity and good faith. Giving up (the illusion of) control frees up a lot of resources - you no longer have to have complicated contracts or elaborate controlling mechanisms. So having a culture of trust is a clear competitive advantage for any organisation.

But not only does the absence of controlling save resources, Sprenger argues that in a trustful relation "unspoken", implicit contracts are more binding than explicit contracts on paper. Humans are social beings, and relations are of utmost importance to us, that is why honoring agreements and trusting have been powerful habits that boosted the performance of our species in the past. Trust is deeply ingrained and an essential human trait.

But nowadays we no longer have the time to grow trust through familiarity and intimacy. We are working in short projects with people who we hardly know. We have to learn the ability to trust strangers - this kind of proactive trusting is a skill that needs to be recognized and developed.

Sustainable Pace

Trust is a reaction to risky situations

Often trust is perceived as something inherently risky - can I really trust that person? But trust itself is never risky, it is merely an option how to react to risky situations. It helps to distinguish between risk factors, for example, whether the other person has the ability or the willingness to complete a given task. Ability can be developed by training, but a lack of will might disqualify that person.

There is a saying in german, "Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser", meaning trust is good, but control is even better. While that statement might sound dated, Sprenger says it's actually neither right nor false, it depends on the situation. For example, you can easily control your barber by taking a look in the mirror, while you might have trouble evaluating the work of your tax advisor.

However, that saying implies that mistrust is the default, which is dangerous. Trust should be the default way of acting, and when trust is misused, rather deal with the consequences than following the impulse to ramp up controlling. (By the way, the quote is attributed to Lenin, but it is a misquote. What he said originally is rather something like "trust, and also check")

How to create trust

Just saying "you can trust me" doesn't lead to people trusting you. They might actually trust you less. Trust always starts with vulnerability. Sprenger recollects a friend browsing a book store while being away in foreign city, finding a great book, but not having enough money to pay for it. Nevertheless, the shop owner let him take the book, telling to pay him later. By exposing himself (the friend might not have paid after all) he created an implicit contract, that was so powerful that made the person pay him even a little more than what was owed.

Making yourself vulnerable and proactively trusting others sounds counter-intuitive, but here weakness is actually strength. Trust creates a responsibility in people, and if trust is reduced, there is less commitment from the other person. In german we have the term "innere Kündigung", which means mentally cutting the ties to your organization. So think twice, your well-intended controlling mechanisms might eventually backfire.

But let's be honest, trust will not work in any case. When you find out that you can't trust someone at all, it's best to stop collaborating altogether. There is no benefit in trying to change people, and it wastes everyone's time. But remember, while you can't trust everyone, the only way to find trustful relationships is to trust people.

Summary

The book is almost 20 years old now, but it is still a great read today. Some of the examples may be dated, and organizations with complex problems have surely evolved towards a more trust-based culture. Still, the philosophical and anthropological discussion of trust is timeless, I liked the clarity and brevity of the book. I think I now have a better understanding of how to employ trust more consciously and more actively in my day-to-day work.

(I'm sharing this book on book crossing! Send me a message on Twitter and I will send it to you for free.)