Are We Becoming Too Trusting?

By Wendy Wollner Jul 07, 2021

When I talk to my clients, they tell me that the past year has been one long trust exercise. Time and time again during the pandemic, we’ve been forced to allow ourselves to fall backwards, hoping that someone will catch us.

It started early on, when public health officials announced that we shouldn’t wear a mask, then changed course and said we should, but it had to be the right kind. Surfaces were risky at first, then suddenly they weren’t. But the experts were just doing their best to keep us safe, right?

Remember when some school boards kept kids in the classrooms long after just about everything else had closed down? Or when colleges brought back students when the infection rates were still dangerously high? We only could have faith that they would keep our children healthy.

Work was a tough one, especially after so many of us started working remotely. Those of us who were managers had to trust that our team was being as productive as possible. We all had to rely on colleagues more than ever, asking them for help on projects when the stress and strain of working from home got too much.

We’ve all felt let down a lot, such as when public health officials seemed to be hedging their bets. (Most of us had assumed that outdoor gatherings were pretty safe long before we got the official word from on high.) Politicians used the pandemic to score points, which was endlessly frustrating. Our bosses didn’t share enough about how our companies were doing, causing us unnecessary stress.

All of this has taken its toll on us. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which for the past two decades has been tracking our beliefs in our community institutions, had some troubling finding what we believe in this year. It turns out that trust in the government, the media, and even charitable institutions is at an all-time low.

Trust in public health officials is also dropping. A recently study by Harvard University’s School of Public Health found that only a third of people have a positive view of the country’s healthcare system.

Human beings are hardwired to trust. Neuroscientific research reveals that the desire to make connections with other people is built into our DNA. Where as losing faith in a person or an institution throws our system for a loop.

Not trusting people certainly goes against the grain for me. I tend to believe everybody. And I mean everybody. And look where it got me: two divorces and hundreds of bad dates. No, make that horrible dates.

It has affected my work as well. At Balancing Life’s Issues, the global training company that I’ve led for the past 28 years, I’ve made plenty of bad hires. In fact, two of them have actually stolen from me. I sometimes wonder why they don’t teach this kind of stuff in business school.

I don’t mind admitting that sometimes I’m a little too trusting. But has it always been a negative thing? I’ve put together a tight-knit team that reaches more than a million people each year. I can’t imagine working with a better group of people. Maybe another way of looking at it is that I am willing to take a chance on people with a lot of potential. Sometimes they crash and burn, but more often they soar.

On the other hand, can a lack of trust hurt you in the long run? I strongly believe that once doubt kicks in, all that potential goes out the window. Maybe the best tactic is to strike balance between the two.

When clients talk about the challenges over the past year, I remind them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Our vaccination program started off rocky, but now half the population is at least part of the way there. Health officials now say that those who are fully vaccinated can take off their masks most of the time both indoors and out. The country is finally reopening, and it’s such a good feeling.

But we’re not quite there yet. Schools are reopening, so we’ll have to figure out how we feel about sending our kids out into the world. Companies are starting to call their employees back into the office, which feels strange and scary. It’s going to take a lot for many of us to walk in the front door of the office for the first time in more than a year.

So I guess what I’m saying is, this year-long trust exercise isn’t over yet. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take a breath, lean back and trust that people will be there to catch me.