Building Trust Several Stories High

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” 

~Groucho Marx

Troublemakers erode trust faster than we can build it back right now. Yet, many of these “troubles” are invented and predictable if you know what to look for. And once you can anticipate divisive reasoning, you can diagnose it correctly, apply the right remedies, and rebuild trust in the process.

People invested in the “art of looking for trouble” use unavoidable paradoxes to cause conflict. Help your workgroup see these patterns and it is like flipping on a light switch that reveals collaborative solutions hidden from adversarial points of view.

Ask your workgroup what makes a leader trustworthy, and you will probably hear a mix of paradoxical expectations: humility and decisiveness, quality and quantity. And while we blithely embrace the idea that leadership is a both/and prospect, it is a helluva awkward goal to pull off in real life.

Listening, a form of humility-in-action, may be covertly mocked as a weakness by those who glorify certainty, speed, and action. One decisive act that delivers unintended offense results in accusations of malicious intent. And once your work group is all stirred up, collaboration suffers.

Paradoxes Violate Logic

We need leaders who are both firm and flexible, both efficient and ethical. Yet being firm can shut people down and being ethical can look wildly inefficient. These conflicting paradoxical values initiate a “violation of logic” that unmediated, damages trust. We need a better way to describe the predictable contrasts that happen when two (or more) equally important values can only be achieved in tandem, not simultaneously. For instance, safety and freedom have a paradoxical (inverse) relationship. Safety measures often hinder freedom and vice versa. But that doesn’t mean we have to divide ourselves into Team Safety and Team Freedom and fight it out. There are much better ways to deal with easily predicted contrasts than framing them as conflicts.

Fair or Unfair?

Our distrust is very expensive.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

We, humans, are concerned about “fairness” from the time we are infants. It’s vital to our survival to discern between trustworthy people/systems and untrustworthy people/systems. Infants, who watch a puppet show as a kitten puppet tries to open a box while one bunny helps and another bunny keeps shutting the lid, show a clear preference for the helpful bunny.

From the time we are born until we die, our life circumstances depend on making good distinctions between trustworthy and untrustworthy situations. But characterizing contrasting perceptions of fairness as conflicts destroys trust.

When I ask participants in a workgroup to anonymously write on an index card the percentage of trust and honesty within their group, using a 0-100% scale, the numbers generally range from 90% (the leaders) down to 0%, with an average often below 65%. If that remotely represents the true ­–­ though, in fact, unquantifiable ­­– level of trust among participants, 65% is a sad result.

Trust Depends on Perceptions of Fairness

Expectations of reciprocity fuel contributions toward organizational goals. But we rarely think about how mismatched our expectations of reciprocity can be. I expect my paycheck at the end of the month so I give you a month of my time, energy, creativity, and effort with the trust that you will come through with my check. I trust that you will treat me fairly so I work hard. Unless… I unexpectedly help bring in a huge account that makes the company several million dollars; in which case I expect more than my usual paycheck, because “that’s only fair.” And if I am not treated “fairly” (by my definition), I will be taking a lot of sick days this month. I won’t work as hard and I might just “forget” to finish that report you wanted. Once a situation feels unfair, willing contributions decrease and in severe cases deteriorate into sabotage often without any understanding of how and why trust was broken.

The subjective nature of what is and isn’t fair is unavoidable. Forcing a single explicit definition of fairness only guarantees we violate alternative perceptions. We need more flexibility in order to grow trust by treating people fairly on their own terms. Old assumptions by economists that assume any “rational” person will maximize utility are upended by economic experiments that illustrate how establishing reciprocity­ is, at times, more important than gaining utility. People defer the immediate goal of maximizing utility when they act generously to establish “trust” for future mutual benefits. Many forego utility by spending their own money to punish free riders. These technically irrational decisions inspire future reciprocity specifically by bypassing a short-term opportunity to profit to establish long-term trust. It is a violation of logic, but that’s how trust works. Trust is an act of faith.

Fair from Seven Subjective Points of View

What seems fair to one person can simultaneously be interpreted as unfair via at least six other mathematically defensible interpretations. Every decision to give time, energy, money or attention includes a complex (largely subconscious) evaluation of past experiences and future impact on status, family, monetary impact, peer behavior, and more. Organizational success depends on a critical mass of individuals who trust that they will get a fair return for their efforts. How do they interpret a fair return? Here are at least seven contrasting interpretations of fairness:

  • Fairness means we all share equally: “Six people and three new laptops mean each laptop should be shared by two people. All for one and one for all.”
  • Fairness means whoever worked hardest gets the most: “Hey now, I work twelve hours a day, and this guy I’m supposed to share with barely puts in four hours so it’s only fair to give me a laptop to myself and let him wait until we get more.”
  • Fairness means whoever contributed the most gets the most: “Whoa, there, Mr. Martyr. You may spend twelve hours a day working, but I’m the rainmaker. I brought in the Mr. Big Bucks account so I get as many laptops as I need. It was my contribution that paid for them.”
  • Fairness means those who have been here the longest get the most: “Sorry Golden Girl, you may have had a good year but I’ve been here for twenty years. I am also the union representative so I will be getting the first new laptop that walks in that door.
  • Fairness means whoever needs it the most gets the most: “No one here is in any position to make demands. All three laptops are going to our office that was damaged by the flood. They lost everything and they need them more than we do.”
  • Fairness means whoever got there first gets the most: “Look, Sister Teresa, possession is nine-tenths of the law. The laptops in question are already in use by my staff. You guys are too late.”
  • Fairness means whoever is clever enough to win the game of business deserves what they win: “Actually, my agent negotiated in my contract that both I and my assistant get new laptops every two years, so you guys can argue over this remaining one, but two of those computers belong to me.”

Simply reading this list destabilizes one’s confidence that fair has a definition. And that’s a good thing. Jumping to the conclusion that someone with a contrasting point of view is unfair or irrelevant fuels distrust. The imprecision of these interpretations is not in question. The point is that because fairness is impossible to define we need to do a much better job of creating a range of perceptions of fairness.

Getting around the impossibility of Equality/Fairness

In the 1950s, Dr. Kenneth J. Arrow proved that equality, defined as perfectly fair access to opportunities and fair distribution of risks, is a mathematical impossibility. Arrow included four mathematical equations. Roughly translated as:

1. I get as much choice as you do. 2. I don’t suffer for your gain.
3. This is not a dictatorship, and, 4. Resources are limited.

He never found a formula where all four equations could be true at the same time. At one level, he proved equality is impossible. For a long time, economists seemed to assume that meant there was no use trying to improve perceptions of equality.

Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize in 1998 for contributions to welfare economics. His work shows how often injustice causes war and famine. Specifically, he made the point that while collective decisions will never achieve mathematically perfect equality, we can improve current levels of inequality if we just find a way to aggregate individual comparisons of value into collective decision-making (Sen, 2004). Sharing stories about what fairness means to your group is the fastest way to aggregate individual comparisons. Sen suggests reviewing “imprecise” interpersonal comparisons beyond the reach of mathematical measures – where life, in all its uncertainty and ambiguity, is actually lived. For instance, a papaya is useless to a person who dislikes them while simultaneously valuable to the person who enjoys them – even if the mathematical measure of both papayas is demonstrably equal. If the papaya-hater trades her papaya for two of the papaya-lover’s oranges this mutual mixing of subjective valuations can create a mutual experience of fairness, if not a mathematically defensible one.

When it comes to trust, logical rational models are of limited value. Rigid models invoke the damning effect of ignoring the paradoxes that yes, may violate logic but also sustain social trust.

It’s time to do a better job with this “both/and” thing by sharing and validating multiple perceptions of what fairness means in action.


Annette Simmons
Annette Simmons
Annette Simmons most popular book, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling came out in the year 2000. CEO-Read twice named it as one of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. It is now available in a 3rd edition with two new chapters. Her workbook titled Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins is also available in its 2nd edition. All five of Simmons’ business books define and promote “power-with” strategies and principles even though (and in some cases, specifically because) they undermine autocratic “power-over” strategies. Simmons earned her business degree from Louisiana State University in 1983 before spending ten years in Australia working in international business. She returned to the USA and earned a master's degree from North Carolina State University in adult education with a minor in psychology. She taught leadership and self-awareness under her mentor, Jim Farr. She began recording true stories about “turf wars” that revealed ten predictable tactics commonly used to protect silos in her first book Territorial Games: Understanding and Ending Turf Wars at Work. American Management Association gave away 40,000 free copies as their free membership gift in 1998 and it was eventually translated into eleven languages. That was the year she started Group Process Consulting. Her clients have included NASA, Microsoft, Meta, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, businesses large and small, non-profits, and governments. Annette uses storytelling to teach work groups how to dialogue about diverse perspectives and connect the dots between seemingly adversarial perceptions into a new shared bigger picture. Her second book A Safe Place for Dangerous Truth: Using Dialogue to Overcome Fear and Distrust describes a variety of facilitation strategies that increase participant self-awareness and self-regulation. Her most recent book Drinking from a Different Well: How Women’s Stories Change What Power Means in Action challenges traditional assumptions about what power is, what it is for, and who should have it. This book is a love letter to women who instinctively seek to balance “winning” with moral acts of generosity that protect the weak and preserve our planet.

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  1. Hi Annette Simmonds
    This piece was passed on to me by Charlotte Wittenkamp on LinkedIn and I will respond more fully there.
    But I did want to say I enjoyed the thoroughness of your analysis.

    Some combinations ight also work: e.g., -Marxian-“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”

    And the addition of time -scheduling useage.

    As you point out the discsuusion is what is important -“visible fair process” as Chan Kim would say.


    • thank you for your interest Alan! As a practitioner I focus not on what makes sense, but on what works in real life. So…I first wrote about territorial games and dialogue in the late 90s. Working with government and corporate clients showed me that treating diverse POVs as if they could be resolved by debate (adversarial inquiry) often prevented situational solutions. As a result of many experiments facilitating intact groups I documented in “A Safe Place for Dangerous Truths” a process by which a group of diverse POVs can reach a hybrid consensus. While we have lots of hypothetical solutions I found that applied solutions required a high level of skill in group process, the opportunity to go slow, devalue consistency, and oh SO much self regulation. Without these skills…and without a desire to find situational definitions of what is fair for us, here, now – groups who understood the need for compromise found the actual application of it so hard they’d default to authority. One of the four group escape strategies includes “dependence” (i.e. “just tell us what to do”) so that IN ACTION when the going got hard, most groups would choose a strategy just to get the hell out of the room. Most intended to “sort it out later” – so diverse POVs ended up playing out during implementation (via territorial games). Thus an ideal like Marxian still has to be reprocessed over and over for any group to decide what that means for them. My goal is to highlight that an ideal is only as good as our practical application of that ideal.

  2. Annette – What a wonderful read! You really ignited my thinking. I’ve really never considered how many different definitions of “fairness” there could be and your list above did a brilliant job of illustrating how they could all equally be viewed as fair. Thank you for writing this!

  3. Exactly! Amartya Sen said there is an “embarrassment of riches” between where we are now and what progress we can make toward building perceptions of fairness. This requires a collection of ratios instead of only one. Multi-rational rather than Uni-rational! No need to continue to avoid the subjective nature of fairness.

    • That’s what has happened so far. People just decide it is impossible so why try. But Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for illustrating the between giving up (or imposing a top down definition unilaterally as you suggest) there is an “embarrassment of riches” to be gained when we blend everyone’s definition. I’m reading his memoir right now and I’m fascinated by this term “contrived hatred” used when ethnic groups weaponize different interpretations.