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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

"Trust but Verify?" Try "Trust but Specify!"

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The phrase "Trust but verify" is often attributed to President Ronald Reagan, who used it frequently during negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. However, Reagan was not the originator of this proverb. The expression comes from the Russian saying "Doveryai no proveryai," which means trust but verify. This proverb was popularized in the West through Reagan, but it has deeper roots in Russian culture and was even used by Lenin.

Reagan's adoption of this phrase was strategic. During the Cold War, it was essential to ensure that agreements, especially those regarding nuclear arms, were strictly adhered to. The phrase underscored the need for extensive verification procedures to monitor compliance with treaties, reflecting a practical approach to diplomacy where trust needed to be backed by tangible proof. Reagan’s repeated use of the phrase, despite Gorbachev’s comments about its redundancy, highlighted the importance of maintaining vigilance in an environment where the stakes were incredibly high.

Solid Management Approach?

“Trust but verify” is not just a diplomatic principle but also a management strategy. It encapsulates the balance between granting autonomy and ensuring accountability. In a survey, I found that 61.2% of people rated trustworthiness as the most important quality in their leaders, peers, and professionals they interact with, showing that trust is fundamental in various relationships. However, when it comes to leaders trusting their employees, trustworthiness was not the highest priority; instead, hard work ranked first. This indicates a discrepancy in how trust is perceived and valued across different roles.

In his book "Smart Trust," Stephen M.R. Covey argues that blind trust is not an intelligent strategy, especially in a low-trust world. He suggests that while trust is crucial, it must be exercised with caution. Monitoring or verifying does not necessarily indicate a lack of trust but rather a prudent approach to managing risks and ensuring that responsibilities are met. Leaders must find a balance between granting trust and implementing verification processes to maintain high performance without undermining the trust they have placed in their teams.

The Reciprocity of Trust

Here comes the rub. Trust is inherently reciprocal. When leaders trust their team members and show it through their actions, it often leads to increased trustworthiness among the team. People tend to rise to the occasion when they feel trusted; they work harder to justify the trust placed in them. Conversely, if trust is not shown, it can decrease trustworthiness and overall performance.

Building a culture of trust requires demonstrating trust through actions. If leaders trust and give their team autonomy, it can lead to higher performance. However, if verification processes are overemphasized, it can signal a lack of trust, which may reduce the team's motivation to perform at their best. Thus, leaders must strike a balance where they trust their teams while maintaining enough oversight to ensure accountability.

Can Trust Cause Low Performance?

Interestingly, a 2004 study by Claus Langfred of Washington University found that in self-managed teams, high trust (which leads to low monitoring) combined with high autonomy could lead to lower performance. This counterintuitive finding suggests that when team members trust each other too much and avoid monitoring to avoid hurting feelings or seeming not to be “team players,” it can result in decreased performance. The lack of monitoring means that there is less accountability, which can lead to complacency and mistakes.

Langfred's research involved MBA students working in self-managed teams on tasks over four months. The study revealed that teams with high trust and low monitoring performed worse than those with high trust and high monitoring. This indicates that some level of monitoring is necessary to maintain performance, even in high-trust environments. The key takeaway is that trust alone is not enough; it must be complemented by appropriate oversight to ensure that high performance is sustained.

Trust but Specify

I believe Langfred's study has a few flaws that lead to his conclusions. First, the level of trust among a team of MBA students, who probably met only once a week for a period of only four months, is not high, even if they reported it to be high. Second, he didn’t address the specificity of the expectations of the roles of the different students in their various parts of the project. Therefore, while each student may have done their work well and in a trusted way, they may not have done what others expected of them.

The concept of "Trust but verify" should be extended to specifying expectations clearly. Trusting someone does not mean giving them free rein without guidance. Clear expectations and specifications are crucial to ensuring that the trust placed in someone leads to the desired outcomes. When expectations are unclear, the need for monitoring increases because the likelihood of misalignment and mistakes increases.

An example from a corporate setting illustrates this point. In a project with slipping deadlines, the new leader spent significant time defining the project's components and expectations clearly. This reduced the need for monitoring because the team members knew exactly what was expected of them and could work autonomously while being held accountable for specific outcomes.


In essence, trust must be paired with clear communication of expectations. This approach reduces the need for excessive verification while ensuring that the trust placed in team members is justified through their performance. By specifying what is expected, leaders can foster an environment where trust leads to high performance and accountability without the negative implications of excessive monitoring. Stop saying, “Trust but verify!” When you verify, you demonstrate distrust and reduce trustworthiness and trust. Start saying, “Trust but specify!”

Dr. Yoram Solomon

Dr. Yoram Solomon is an expert in trust, employee engagement, teamwork, organizational culture, and leadership. He is the author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a three-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop and masterclass that explains what trust is and how to build trust in organizations. He is a frequent speaker at SHRM events and a contributor to magazine.


The Book of Trust®, The Innovation Culture Institute®, and Trust Habits® are registered trademarks of Yoram Solomon. Trust Premium™, the Relative Trust Inventory™, and The Trust Show™ are trademarks of Yoram Solomon.

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