#20 Our Trust In Competence – The Bright And Dim Sides


There are two sides to the competence face of trust that I have noticed. You might say there’s a bright side and a dim side. The bright side first.

In a couple of classes I have asked participants to break into pairs and talk about a time when someone – boss, parent, mentor or some such person – trusted them to perform in a way that they had never performed before. A time when someone believed in them more than they believed in themselves. Performance in this case can refer to managing a project, writing, speaking, selling, advocating, athletics, the arts – anything that requires capability.

In such a conversation people often speak about how they were buoyed by the trust in their abilities that was extended to them. As a result they rose to the occasion and achieved something they had not achieved before. In his popular book The Speed of Trust Stephen M.R. Covey makes the point that this kind of trust leads to greater performance. Everything happens better and faster when it is lubricated by trust. Everything happens at the speed of trust.

I suggest that you examine the degree of trust you extend to people in your life. Perhaps there are situations in which the potential performance gain from trusting more is worth the downside risk, which may include a potential conflict that could arise if trust is broken.

This wraps up the bright side of the competence face of trust through which we can facilitate performance and growth by extending trust. Now for the dim side of the competence face of trust.

Imagine that you have been introduced to a surgeon who will be operating on you the following day. You like him and sense that he has integrity. But, be careful of a tendency to gloss over competence when you detect integrity.  At this point you know little about his competence at surgery. Although it may be true that high integrity is associated with competence, it is far from a guarantee.

And worse, there is often little we can do to ascertain the relative competence of a professional. The objective of professional organizations is to ensure that members perform up to an acceptable standard, not a better than average standard. They don’t produce lists of colleagues who they feel are average or less than average at their work, but 50 percent of them are lower than average. We probably tend to assume that we are receiving relatively better service than we are. Much of the time it is probably below average in quality. We live in a sea of moderate competence with some high and low competence exceptions.


Quote by Gordon White: Although it may be true that high integrity is associated with competence, it is far from a guarantee."


So what is to be done? We can live with more awareness. We can trust blindly less, and be more conscious of the risks we all take with professionals whose services we seek. We are fortunate when we receive the highest level of service, but it is not something we are entitled to. On average, the best is not possible. If they saw it more this way, perhaps fewer people would embark on the often painful road of suing professionals for poor service.

On the other hand, when we do have information on both competence and integrity, it may make sense to sacrifice integrity for competence. Would you rather have a mediocre carpenter with flawless personal integrity; or, the one who is cheating on his wife, but is the best craftsman in town? It probably depends on what kind of person you are. I wager that there are readers who would choose the best craftsman in town.

This winds down the (sad) story of the dim side of the competence face of trust. Do remember the bright side as well. You can increase performance and facilitate growth by extending trust.


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One Response to #20 Our Trust In Competence – The Bright And Dim Sides

  1. Gail Sibley says:

    Wow! Having read your post I started thinking of all the professionals I completely trust and who I expect the best service from – my doctor, my dentist, my accountant. It’s difficult to judge their competency except to know that I am happy with what they do.

    I also trust the pilot of the commercial airlines, the captain of the cruise ships, the bus driver of my local transit, the policemen on the street. Yet the police have had some not great press recently and undoubtedly, our trust in the police force is diminished because of that. The same goes for the priesthood, previously a venerable and trustworthy part of the good church, now tainted by broken trust.

    You have given me much to chew over!

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