Trust by Default

In this article, I will show how trust by default works for me and what benefits trusting people from the start has brought me. It’s my piece of thought leadership on trust, and my way of doing penance for my agile sins from the past.

Trust is something that I do from the first contact that I have with someone. I trust by default, I start from the assumption that we have mutual trust.

I trust customers who contact me and are interested in my products or services. I’m open and honest on what I can offer to my clients, assuming that if there’s something that is valuable for them they will buy it.

I trust the people that I collaborate with by default. I start from the assumption that they will do the best they can, given circumstances. I rely on them, just as they can rely on me.

My belief is that trust is not something that should be earned. Instead, I prefer to give trust from the very beginning. Even with someone that I don’t know, in the first contact, which is usually virtual by email or chat.

Does that sound scary? I can tell you it isn’t. It’s safe, and it works for me. Maybe it can work for you too?

Lack of trust

Let’s first explore what happens when there isn’t trust by default.

In many organizations, employees and teams are hoping their managers will trust them. They may even ask for trust. Give us space to do our work, just assume that we can get the job done is what they say.

But many managers find it difficult to start from trust, they think that trust should be earned. For instance by teams that commit to something and then fulfill that commitment. Or by having people over a longer time meeting their delivery deadlines or goals.

Then often teams are afraid to commit as they don’t get autonomy or support from their managers due to a lack of trust. They are also afraid to take action as their managers might object to what they are doing. Sometimes things don’t happen because everybody is waiting and nobody dares to take the first step.

As a result, managers start micro-managing people because they don’t trust them to self-organize. They are afraid that things might go wrong if they don’t keep an eye on things and tell people what to do.

People feel that they are not being trusted by their managers. Hence they shift to taking orders over thinking for themselves.

We’re stuck, we need to break out. Trust by default is a way to do this.

How trust by default works in practice

Trust by default is something that I strongly believe in. It’s a habit, something that I do automatically in many things.

Here are some examples of how I trust people by default.

When I discuss with someone how we will collaborate, I assume that they will keep their word and do what we spoke or chatted about and agreed upon. Hence I don’t ask people to sign a contract. I do check my assumptions, just to be sure that I got it right. This is for instance how I do my writing for InfoQ. We agreed that I will publish at least one news article every week on Thursday. There’s no contract, instead, I send an invoice every three months for the publications, which is paid promptly.

I’m transparent on what drives me, the “why”. I’m not afraid to explain my motives. I dare to share my goals and reasons for doing something or not doing something. As an example, the reason that I’m making games and exercises from my workshops available as digital downloads is that I believe that people who know how to facilitate playing them can use them to help teams reflect and improve. I’m open about this because I trust that people with facilitation skills will feel safe to use the games in their daily work, knowing that that is what I intend and fully support.

I trust my clients to call on me when there’s something I can help them with. I don’t push stuff on people, instead, clients pull me in when they are in need of something that I can offer. For instance, with one client I prepared a “menu” of workshops and coaching topics. Once they were ready for a specific session, we planned it. Once we’ve accomplished their learning goals, we wrapped things up and concluded the assignment. Now we’re done!

If we can’t be flexible on when to work on something, for instance where significant traveling is involved, then I’m flexible on the topics and content that we work on. I once did a full week of training and mentoring sessions where we only made a schedule for the first two days. This client trusted me by saying “just bring your laptop with everything on it, we’ll pick whatever serves us best as I know you will have more than enough of it”. I trusted this client to come up with topics that I know about, respect it when I have to be honest and say there’s something I cannot do, and don’t wear me out. We finished every day with a retrospective, looking back on what we accomplished and where we are now, and decide what we would do the next day. And yes, I did spend time in the evening or early morning to prepare for the day. But that was limited to a maximum of one hour per day, leaving enough time to enjoy my dinner, relax, and go for a swim in the hotel pool.

When doing remote coaching or mentoring session, things start from the first contact that I have with the coachee (which most often is by email or LinkedIn chat). As these sessions are one-on-one on personal topics, my assumption is that the coachee trusts me. If not, then they would not ask for this service! I trust that the coachee is open to coaching or mentoring. Hence I start by asking questions via email or LinkedIn to get insight into the problems, needs, and context. Based on the information received we’ll discuss the content and set a date. All of this is done before the coaching or mentoring video call, to ensure that we’re getting a maximum result from the time that we both invest face to face.

I share a lot and often. I dare to share because I’m not afraid of people misusing what I share or taking advantage of it. I trust that people will help me. I don’t have thoughts of people “stealing” my ideas or copying them. If they do, that’s “steal with pride” for me. For example, when one of my books or games is being translated, I provide full access to the source files. The translation team gets edit access on the Google drive and Leanpub to produce the translation. We work together to prepare drafts, review them, and release the translation. I trust them by making everything available from the start.

I’m transparent in how and why I share things, because I trust people not to take advantage of that. For instance, I do share tools from my workshops as I mentioned before but I’m asking for money to download these tools. This is because using these tools can increase performance and output, hence they represent value. My Agile Coaching Tools are real full products, hence they have a price attached to them. But as I want people to use them, they come with free lifetime support.

Note that there’s a difference between sharing and giving something away. People give things away with a purpose in mind, aiming to get something back. These intentions are often hidden. Still, they expect the other person to return the favor. Examples are consultants that offer free copies of their books or provide checklists or exercises or games, hoping that people will buy their services. They use them as marketing tools to sell consultancy. I don’t do that. Instead, if you buy one of my books or agile coaching tools then you get Free Lifetime Support. Buy the product and getting unlimited support works better than downloading something and then finding out that you have to pay (much) money before getting any value because it’s only a teaser or sampler product.

When I’ve made a mistake, I dare to admit it. I trust that people don’t walk away from me if something goes wrong as long as I am open about it and willing to look for solutions to solve things. Customers rate my products and services on Trustpilot. I always respond to those ratings, regardless if they are low or high. I thank people for the feedback, and look for ways to collaborate to further improve my products and services. Failure is ok, as long as you learn from it.

I appreciate getting feedback, I trust that people are honest and open and will share their experiences from working with me. Feedback helps me to continuously improve. Content matters over the format or the channel, all feedback is appreciated. Where I’m getting a lot of feedback directly from the clients, there’s also feedback that I receive in my webshop, and on Amazon and Bol where most of my books are sold. A couple of years ago I also started using Trustpilot. For a one-person company having received 15 ratings (as of November 2020) means a lot to me. What’s I also like from Trustpilot is that they are transparent on the feedback given to Ben Linders and that it’s possible to respond and share on Trustpilot how I have dealt with the feedback.

The examples above on how I trust by default can be perceived as promotional. They are however not intended as such. I believe that people can lead others by being an example. The same is true for “thought leadership”, that’s why I share my thoughts and experiences as food for thought. I’m hoping to inspire you and give you ideas for experimenting with trust by default.

Benefits of trust by default

I’ve been trusting people by default for some years now. Initially, I was unaware that I was doing it, this being a natural thing for me. As I was reading more and more about trust I became aware that I was doing it differently, with trusting by default. Next, I started giving attention to how I do it and how it works for me.

Trust by default makes life easier for me. And it’s giving me and the people that I work with a lot of benefits.

Some of the benefits that trust by default has brought me are:

  • I don’t spend time checking out potential clients to find out if they are trustworthy. They are, by default :-).
  • I can focus on the result and do what I expect will contribute to that.
  • I don’t have to be on guard for things that can happen due to mistrust.
  • I’m more often relaxed as I know that things will work out the best way they can.
  • I don’t have to worry a lot or feel afraid that something fails. If it does, I’ll learn from it.
  • There less work in remembering what I said to somebody. By being transparent and honest my answer will automatically be the same when asked again.
  • If things have changed, then there’s a reason for that which I can openly talk about based on trust.
  • I can write an article on trust by default to share what I do and how I do it without being afraid that people will steal or copy my ideas :-).

Doing penance for my agile sin

For me, trust by default is a natural thing to do. It’s common sense. That’s why I rarely talk about it. But this time I had to do it and I needed to write it down in this article, as a penance for my sin.

I confessed my agile sins to Giles Lindsay in a podcast for The Agile Confessional: managing a team in a command and control way and forgetting to let the world know how the team became truly agile before agile was invented.

After talking about my agile sins, I now want to do penance to get absolved.

This is what Giles told me after my confession:

Ben, your penance will be to share something that is currently working out for you today in a blog post that may not necessarily be that special for you but may be a great piece of thought leadership for the readers 🙂

Trust by default is something that is working for me. I don’t find it special.

Reading stories about difficulties with trust when people collaborate, in teams or between different teams or with stakeholders tells me that trust can be a major issue. People do have issues with trust, and many teams and organizations are lacking trust.

I don’t want to make the same mistake of not letting the world know about something that works for me and withhold something that can help people to solve trust issues that they are having or facing in the future.

I’m hoping this article inspires you to trust other people by default. To experiment with giving trust over having to earn trust. To change your assumptions regarding how trust works. To live a more relaxed and happier life.

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Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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