"Managing" Distrust

Roy Lewicki 

Professor of Management and Human Resources at Ohio State University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: I find the notion of managing distrust pretty provocative and almost refreshing in a sense because I think a lot of people would tell you it is almost impossible to build trust. For example, the cases you have been talking about where trust has been destroyed. How do you manage distrust?

A: You set up boundaries to monitor and manage possible future transdirections or future violations. You are vigilant. You set up rules and procedures. You follow processes. Look at our obsession with national and international security these days. What do we do? We put in checkpoints, we search people, we interrogate people, we ask people questions, we try to read their eye movements, and we do a variety of things to find out if they are an honorable person or a terrorist. None of that builds trust. All that does is try to manage and control for downside risk. The message that we are trying to get through is that if you assume that if you put in mechanisms that you create for us by managing distrust, you are crazy. We will never get the Iraqi people to trust us by a lot of control and by putting in mechanisms to try to minimize terrorism in their country. We are going to have to do a variety of very different kinds of things. You don't create trust in a work force by putting in time clocks or elaborate rules or mechanisms for what people have to do to take a day off from work, or leave work early or come into work late or finish their job. People are very good particularly in positions of power by figuring out how to monitor and control. One has to be very clear that what you are doing there has nothing to do with trust building. All it has to do is manage downside risk. Don't be na‹ve in assuming the fact that not only is it not going to build trust, but in many cases it may make people much more cautious about you and what your motives and intentions are.

Q: So it is a bit of a paradox because the way to manage distrust was to create more structure in the interaction process. However, the creation of that structure is not going to promote any trust, but that is the only way to manage distrust.

A: Right. You and I really love each other and we're going to get married, but before we do I'd like you to sign this 20-page prenuptial agreement. Just in case. How has that just transformed the nature of what the trust is all about?

Q: Don't you trust me?

A: Of course! But my lawyer said we should do this to protect my fortune. In the world I come from, the business community, we face the same problem. Companies want to work together and do business with each other all the time. Most managers would like to do business on a handshake. When you ask the corporate attorney what they should be doing they say that they need a legal, 75-page document that specifies how the companies will work together and what happens if one or both parties defect from that. That is not trust building. That is distrust binding. It is not the same thing. Not only is it not trust building, but in fact, it may damage what it takes to work together.