Trust But Verify

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 28, 2011

"You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment if you do not trust enough."
Frank Crane

Trust is essential to any relationship. Marriages need it. Friends need it. Organizations need it. Even countries need it. Without trust, there is no mortar to hold us together. Without trust, teams can't win; teachers can't teach; politicians can't lead; organizations can't grow. 

But is it possible to be too trusting? In Executive Leadership, the story is told of the FBI's excessive trust of Robert Hanssen. Everyone ignored his security breaches because they refused to consider that one of its own could be a traitor. Instead, FBI leaders blamed the CIA as they searched for a mole, nearly charging an innocent CIA officer. 

So bad was the FBI's sense of denial that in the 25 years Hanssen worked there, he never took a lie-detector test and had only one background check. When Hanssen's brother-in-law, an FBI agent in Chicago, reported in 1990 that the spy had an unexplained stash of $5,000 in his dresser drawer, Hanssen's supervisor refused to act. 

In 1997, convicted spy Earl Pitts told agents that Hanssen was involved in suspicious activity. Three years later the FBI finally investigated. 

Hanssen is now serving a life sentence for identifying U.S. agents to Russia and for revealing our technological and nuclear secrets. 

One of the favorite photos I have ever taken was during a short visit to St. Maarten in the Caribbean. Evie and I were joining many other tourists walking in and out of the quaint shops. Just as we were walking through a doorway I noticed a uniformed law enforcement person standing there observing everyone. The patch on his shoulder caught my eye and I asked him for permission to photograph it. It simply says, "In God we trust; everyone else we observe." 

In his book Staying Street Smart in the Internet Age Mark H. McCormack says that to succeed in business, it's imperative that you be able to discern whom you can trust and whom you can't. 

He says we should watch out for people with these six most dangerous character flaws: 
1. People who rarely do that they say they will. 
2. People who push their work onto you. 
3. People who are late and don't apologize 
4. People who tell you, "I'm too busy." 
5. People who reject your ideas out-of-hand. 
6. People who won't let you off the hook if you're in a jam. 

After being married to Evie for 43 years and counting, we obviously have accrued an enormous level of trust in each other. But it wasn't always that way. Within our very first month something happened that tested our fledgling trust of each other. 

We both got in our car. Evie was on her side while I got behind the wheel. Both of us were amazed to see there on the floor mat at my feet the remains of a cigarette. Thinking it might be mine, Evie asked me if I knew how it got there, inferring it might be mine. I still remember how it felt not to be trusted. 

The more I tried to explain that I didn't know, the more flustered I got. My anxiety created even more anxiety with her. Yes, at that time she trusted me that I did not smoke, but the evidence seemed to speak otherwise. I even quoted my mother whose advice I had followed, "If you never smoke one cigarette, you never have to worry about being a chain smoker." To this day we still laugh at that exchange and to this day we have no idea how that cigarette butt got there. 

Trust. How complicated our lives can be if we over-trust or under-trust. I guess that's why Ronald Reagan used to say during the nuclear arms race with Russia when he insisted on knowing whether what he was told was accurate or not, "Trust but verify." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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