Who Do You Trust?

I am in hot pursuit of the idea that there is a separate category of people who navigate living with the aid of acute social intelligence. Those without it – the majority – are at a disadvantage, because they have to rely on second-best “tells” in deciding who to trust, an essential skill and art. If one cannot sense this essence, he or she will be forced to rely on indirect clues: academic degrees, references, personal history, political or religious self-labeling, etc.

In the article indicated below, the comments are as interesting as the essay itself. The first is on the money – liars are horrible bosses. The next adds an essential caveat – that trusting managers do not trust everyone; they have learned who to trust, and who not to. (In my own interviewing of techie job applicants, the only questions I ever asked were variations of “Who are you, really?”)

The third comment is silly. In the first awkward sentence the writer asserts his HR credential, which he then demonstrates means nothing in his case. What set me off was “the most dishonest people (former heroin addicts, high school dropouts)…”. What?! I would be inclined to bet big on the addict, because if he’s come through a 12-step program, he’s probably among the most honest people alive, having been deprived of his delusions of grandeur one by one. And I am myself both a graduate of a 12-step program and a high school dropout. I’ll vouch for myself: I am an honest man. (And this guy is a ludicrous pantywaist.)



I’ve very recently witnessed how a situation can go terribly awry that an empathetic leader would probably have finessed with ease. I know a young woman, Alice, whom I’ve called a secular missionary, because she has succeeded in her intention to become a valued teacher. As is always the case, her relationship with her students is based on mutual trust. She trusts them to do their best, and they trust that she’s totally supportive of them. Often it works, sometimes not. They are poor kids, and their troubles sometimes difficult for us to even imagine. But she has become known in the student body as one of the best. She sometimes counsels students she’s never had in a class, who come to her solely because of her reputation.

This year, in addition to American History, she was asked to teach psychology and sociology classes, which she had been eager to do for some time. For a conscientious person, this requires a big additional personal commitment, to prepare lesson plans as well as to teach. Imagine that as she is addressing each topic, she’s thinking of specific enthusiastic students she’s had in the past – what examples would be most significant for them, how to present material so they can most easily appropriate it for their own…

And then, while teaching the subjects the first year, she’s noting what works and what doesn’t, and perfecting the plans, thinking of the second year – really the first voyage without training wheels. Enrollment for the classes increased significantly because of Alice’s reputation. She has become an integral part of the organism that is the school.

Comes a big problem.

The school’s enrollment has diminished. The teaching load must be re-balanced. In order for another teacher to keep her job – one who has a credential to teach psychology, but not history – Alice must give up the psychology classes.

The principal’s responsibilities here are two. First, she should have established a trusting relationship with Alice before she had to rely on it. For whatever reason, this had not been done – probably because the principal didn’t discern the need for it. Also she needed to recognize and sincerely acknowledge the big personal commitment and investment Alice had made, and was being asked to relinquish. She is a good person, but will not react well to being treated cavalierly. She is no pussy willow.

In the event, Alice was simply told of the plan, and instructed to give her lesson plans to the other teacher. (The principal had planned to simply publish the change at the end of the year, without any discussion at all, but was talked out of that by Alice’s department head.)

Alice balked at surrendering her lesson plans, because that was her only legitimate way to protest. The principal accused her of not being a team player, and not caring about the students. Alice returned to her classroom shedding tears of anger and frustration which she could not forestall. People noticed.

Now the poop has hit the propeller.


This kind of bone-headed ineptitude is common in organizational life of all kinds. I am convinced that no remedial training could compensate for it. And it’s hard for me to admit – because they make me so nuts – that there’s no hope for these people, so I guess they are blameless. Their problem is very much like congenital blindness. In fact, it is congenital blindness – the kind Erasmus meant when he coined his most famous aphorism: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

If only they weren’t so smugly certain in their wrongheadedness! But they are. They always are. I’ll bet Dunning and Kruger are nearby snickering: the most ignorant are most certain of their rectitude. As in every human character trait, for this one, I think we’re all strung out along a continuum shaped in a bell curve. For each of us, there’s a cognitive ceiling in human understanding above which we cannot rise. Above that height is everything we don’t know we don’t know. I favor trying to snuff our arrogance, and trying to raise that ceiling. E. O. Wilson thinks those are the keys to the survival of our species.

I call the trait in question “terrestrial clairvoyance,” to distinguish it from metaphysical and extra-sensory descriptors. It’s normal, but rare.


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