I received a visit the other day from an agent of the US Department of Defense. Upon presenting his credentials to me, he asked if I would be willing to entertain a few questions about the character of a friend of mine who I knew was considering a high security clearance position with the DOD. I experienced no cross examination or intense scrutiny, but the questions were devised to establish two things: first, was this man trustworthy and second, was he moral? This short conversation caused me to consider the cost of distrust in our society.
I’m not just talking about the cost of government policy created to determine the character of the employees who will be placed in positions of trust, but rather the unseen economic and relational costs born by societies of low trust. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, “Our distrust is very expensive.” Consider the expense of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, enacted in the backlash of corporate scandals ranging from Enron to WorldCom. According to Steven M. R. Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust, implementing one section alone of that bill cost 35 billion dollars, leading him to declare, “Compliance regulations have become a prosthesis for the lack of trust—and a slow-moving and costly prosthesis at that…when trust is low, speed goes down and cost goes up.” (p 14) Such cost I remember well while acting as a General Manager in an International 500 Corporation tasked with trying to comply with that very act. Even though I could understand the motive, I felt less trusted and more divided between compliance and productivity then ever.
While we can measure the dollars and cents costs of low trust environments economically, can one measure its impact on peace and security? Benedict Arnold and his associates during the Revolutionary War provide an excellent case study on the subject. Arnold was a brilliant military man, fearless in combat and courageous beyond measure, but his actions off the battlefield did not endear him to others. On more than one occasion, he resigned his commission rather than subject himself to a fellow officer promoted into a command he felt he deserved. Time and again his pride and ego tripped him up and broke down trust as he abandoned his team. His loyalties were to himself. At one point his character was questioned in a court martial proceeding that ended in a formal reprimand. In spite of these suspicions, Washington needed capable military leaders and decided to give Arnold another chance by granting him command of West Point, a strategic American fort.
In debt, suffering from envy and feeling disrespected, the duplicitous Arnold, turned his back on his country and plotted to surrender West Point to the British in return for 20,000 pounds and a command as general in the British Military. In a dramatic espionage climax, the plot was discovered, and Arnold escaped down the river to a British ship just before Washington rode in to his quarters with the intent of capturing the traitor. The costs were high, trust had been lost on both sides, the British paid over 6,000 pounds to Arnold and gave him a high commission and a significant pension, but noted British Parliamentarians such as Edmund Burke considered this an erosion of military strength, stating, “the sentiments of true honour which every British Officer [holds] dearer than life, should be afflicted” by this action. Military and Government officials on both sides had lost respect and trust as a result of one man’s actions.
With critics on both sides of the ocean, Arnold had gained a high commission but had lost respect. James Thatcher, an MD during the war, quoted an officer in his journal as having said, “It is not possible for human nature to receive a greater quantity of guilt than [Arnold] possesses. Perhaps there is not a single obligation, moral or divine, but what he has broken…His late apostasy is the summit of his character.” Arnold died at age 60 suffering from dropsy, gout and delirium before passing on, but his greatest pain must have been the loss of respect and trust which he had so doggedly pursued.
It’s been said that nothing is as fast as the speed of trust. High trust yields high self confidence, powerful relationships, improved economic conditions and strong organizations. So the next time you consider breaking your word to yourself or others, consider the cost of broken trust and then resolve to lubricate the track of success with actions that build trust!