I have two memos sitting unread in my inbox.

One of the memos is great; the other one is terrible. I know which is which. And, as I said, I haven’t yet read either one of them.

Isn’t trust terribly unfair?

Think about the many ways that establishing trust permeates a business relationship. Once the superior (whether that be partner, client, boss, or whomever) trusts the underling, the underling can do no wrong. And once the superior mistrusts the underling, the underling can do no right.

Which of the two unread memos in my inbox is great? The one from the guy I trust. All of his earlier memos have been great. They’re crisp, incisive, intelligent, and lucid; the one that I haven’t yet read is surely a thing of beauty, too. Which memo stinks? The one from the guy I don’t trust. All of his earlier memos have left me gripping my head in agony, trying to figure out what in God’s name this clown was trying to communicate and why anyone would think it was worth trying to communicate that drivel.

Trust permeates everything; it’s terribly unfair. Trust infuses more than just the memos I haven’t yet read. Trust permeates silence, too. How can trust permeate silence?

When I hear nothing about an ongoing event from the guy I trust, that’s very good news: “The matter is under control. There’s nothing for me to worry about. My trustworthy assistant is holding down the fort. How good of him.”

When I hear nothing from the guy I don’t trust, the silence takes on an entirely different meaning: “That matter is probably blowing up, and I’m not hearing anything about it from my subordinate. Why doesn’t that clown report to me on a regular basis? I must make a note to follow up, so I’m not blind-sided by some development that I should know about, but don’t. I really must remember to note on the next performance review my subordinate’s inability to keep me apprised of important information.”

That is the sound of silence — silence — infused with trust or mistrust.

Trust changes the presumption of guilt. When the client does something unspeakably stupid, there are two possible gut reactions. For the person you trust: “My subordinate is a meticulously good lawyer who gives fine advice. What a shame the client went off on a lark and did something stupid. We’ll really have to get the moronic client under control.”

For the person you don’t trust: “Shoot! If only my subordinate had advised the client correctly, the client would have done the right thing. My inept subordinate didn’t give the client sufficient guidance, so my subordinate induced the intelligent client to make a mistake.”

Trust changes the reaction to errors. When the one you trust makes a mistake: “Ha! The trusted one made a mistake. Well, no one’s perfect. I’m kind of pleased to see that the trusted one finally butchered one. It means he’s not God.”

When the one you don’t trust makes a mistake: “Again! How many times can this happen? Can we fire that moron yet?”

Trust changes even your reaction when caller ID tells you who’s on your phone line. For the one you trust: “Ah. I’m about to speak to the trusted one. That means we’ll discuss an issue worth raising, and he’ll probably propose some solution, making my life easy.”

But if you see the name of the one you don’t trust looming on caller ID: “Shoot. I’m about to kill a half hour listening to that clown blather unintelligibly about some issue that doesn’t even matter. Maybe I can avoid this torture by simply not answering the phone.”

Trust is terribly unfair. It causes people to prejudge the quality of your work, forgive your errors, and interpret your silences even before you’ve done anything.

Given how the presence (or absence) of trust pervades a relationship, why do so many people seem to overlook the critical importance of building trust early and never doing anything to undermine that bond?


Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.


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