An article I read offered up advice for dealing with untrustworthy people. The premise of the article was that untrustworthy people habitually lie to you or let you down, and that it is possible to develop strategies to work with them whether they are subordinates, colleagues or your boss. So far, so good.
What struck in this was the unspoken but consistent assumption that "being untrustworthy" is a permanent and irreversible condition, on a par with having blue eyes, or being colour-blind.
Is that necessarily so? I'd like to offer some defence of untrustworthy people.
So what is it that compels us to label someone as "untrustworthy"? Because to be untrustworthy is not a condition that we are born with, nor should it be a permanent label.
Let us think of the impact of using a similar label with children. If a teacher tells a child "you are a bully", then this is creating a label for that child's whole identity, which leaves no room for all the other good and valuable things about their identity. What happens to "you are kind", "you are smart", "you are funny", when you've just been told "you are a bully"? And when you've just been told "you are untrustworthy" what happens to "you are loyal", "you are hard-working", "you are talented" or simply, "you are human"?
Typically, a number of examples of a certain behaviour type that can be labelled as untrustworthy have been generalised by the observer into being the defining characteristic of the whole person. This then deletes all the other observable behaviours which of course will include the normal human range of helpful, neutral and unhelpful behaviours. But the person labelled "untrustworthy" is then only seen through the blinkers that filter out anything else that is true about them and about their other behaviours.
A second, and even more damaging issue when labelling someone as being "untrustworthy" lies in the complete absence of any consideration given to the reasons which underlie the behaviour. If most of us are completely honest, we can think of examples when we might have appeared to be untrustworthy. I know it's true of me.
For example we might be guilty of forgetting a commitment; misleading someone; not doing something we had promised; failing to pass on a piece of information. In each case we know the reason behind it. Maybe we were stressed or overworked at the time. Maybe a matter of a higher priority (to us) arose which took precedence. Maybe we made a promise in order to please someone even though we knew we lacked the skills or resources to deliver. Maybe we felt backed into a corner. Maybe we simply forgot. Who knows?
So before we are quick to judge someone as being untrustworthy, we should take a moment to consider. Firstly, it is not the whole person, but the behaviour that we should be examining. And secondly, what might be true for that person to behave that way with a good, dare I say trustworthy, intention?
Perhaps we should remind ourselves of the wisdom of Plato. "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
How do you feel about trustworthiness? Is it something you feel is changeable within a person?
Madeleine Allen is a human leader in a corporate world. She delivers training in Soft Skills with Hard Benefits, enabling leaders to be compassionate AND profitable.
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