Is Trust More Important Than Performance?

In one of his videos, Simon Sinek points out that trust is more important than performance. I agree with a lot of what he says, but not with this statement. In this article, I will give you two reasons why I so strongly disagree with this statement, but also, given that trust is relative, how do you balance those two?

In that video, he says that during a conversation with a SEAL team, they defined performance as the performance on the battlefield, and trust as the performance off the battlefield. He drew a chart that puts performance against trust.

We agree that nobody wants the low-performance, low-trust person on their team, and we also agree that everyone wants the high-performance high-trust person. But then he goes and makes the statement that “they would rather have a medium performer of high trust, sometimes even a low performer of high trust” (this is a direct quote). This is what I don’t agree with. And here is why.

Is Performance not Important?

I don’t know who was the team that Sinek spoke with. I also interviewed a former Navy SEAL team member for The Book of Trust. I even operated in an Israeli infantry unit myself when I served at the 35th airborne brigade. Let me ask you this: if I’m the sniper on the team. How important is my performance behind the sniper rifle when there are hostiles all around you trying to kill you? If I’m trustworthy off the battlefield, as Sinek refers to it, and you can trust me with your money and your wife (his words, not mine), would you accept that I can’t hit a target that is about to kill you? Or, maybe I’m not such a low performer, but rather a medium performer, and I would hit them only with the third round and alert them to your presence in the battlefield with my first two misses?

What if I’m the pilot of your airplane. I’m very trustworthy when I’m outside of the cockpit, but I’m not that great at landing that airplane. Is that OK then? Maybe I crash only one in 100 landings. So, not that bad, right? Is that acceptable simply because I’m extremely trustworthy when I’m not in the cockpit?

How about a surgeon who is perfectly trustworthy outside of the operating room but has a moderate patient mortality level in his (or her) operating room? Is that OK?

Will you be willing to compromise on my performance behind a sniper rifle on the battlefield, my ability to land a plane from the cockpit, and my ability to not kill you in my operating room as long as I’m trustworthy outside of the battlefield, the cockpit, or the operating room?

I didn’t think so! And that’s the first reason why I disagree with Sinek’s statement.

Performance is Part of Trustworthiness

The second problem I have with this tradeoff between performance and trustworthiness is that these are not separate things.

My trustworthiness model comprises six components, grouped into two groups: the who you are group and the what you do group. The decisions to go with someone to battle, board a plane with a certain pilot, or be operated by a certain surgeon are decisions that must be taken before interacting with that person in the battlefield, the airplane, or the operating room. Those decisions are based on the who you are components: competence, personality compatibility, and symmetry.

Symmetry is a situational component that is typically outside of your control. Personality Compatibility is a subjective and relative component, possibly what Sinek refers to as trust. Performance is part of competence. It is really a subjective factor that answers the question: how good are you at what you do (or, more specifically, at what I need to trust you to do)?

I don’t treat these three components cumulatively. In my model, abundance in one cannot compensate for a lack in another. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t matter to me how trustworthy you are off the battlefield, on the ground, or outside the operating room if you are incompetent (or low performing) on the battlefield, in the cockpit, and with a scalpel. And if you don’t believe me, ask any of the survivors of Continental flight 1713 that crashed in 1987 because the co-pilot who was flying the plane was low-performing. Because you can’t ask any of the 25 passengers and 3 crew members who were killed as a result of that incompetence.

If I had treated the three components in a cumulative way or considered the average of the three, then I would be OK with someone who is grossly incompetent but with a very compatible personality to mine and at a very symmetrical position relative to me. But I don’t. Instead, I multiply them. If you get zero at any of them, your trustworthiness is zero.

I throw in the cubic root of the product of the three just so that if you rank 50% on all three, your trustworthiness level would be 50%. That only makes sense. Performance, or competence, is part of trustworthiness. It’s not separate from it, and because of that, you can’t trade them off against one another.

Trust is Relative

This leaves one more consideration—that trust is relative and not universal. My first three laws of trust address the relativity of trust: trust is continuous, contextual, and personal. Considering that someone is trustworthy is subject to the context. You may consider someone trustworthy in one context but not in another. You may be considered trustworthy by one person but not by another. Finally, there is a certain level of trust that is required to compensate for any given amount of risk. When your life is on the line, the level of trustworthiness you demand of the other person is higher than if all you want to trust them is to return a $20 bill you just lent them. Trust is relative.

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