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I was in a management meeting several years ago, supporting my client, the regional VP.  In the meeting, the VP was addressing the district’s management team.

They were under performing.  He was speaking to their under performance.

At one point he noted that it wasn’t so much that he didn’t trust them — he did — he simply was losing confidence in them.

I was sitting in the last row, in the back of the room.  I saw the agitation; this sentiment clearly hit a nerve.

The seasoned manager sitting next to me leaned over and angrily muttered  “That’s bull#%&! …  he doesn’t trust us; period.”

I didn’t think that was quite right.

In hushed tones I whispered back that I didn’t think that was quite right.  He wanted to know what wasn’t quite right? … and I couldn’t articulate why I thought that, other than feebly mumbling that trust and confidence weren’t the same thing.

“How aren’t they the same thing?”

I had no good answer.

I do now.

That VP was not questioning the character of the management team in front of him.  He was not calling into question their intent.  He wasn’t doubting that they cared about their people …. and their customers … and about providing an exceptional service … efficiently …

What he was questioning was their competence; their capability to deliver results; results that would meet current expectations.

He trusted them … he just didn’t have confidence in them.

*     *     *     *     *

If I knew then what I know now, I would have continued the conversation with this manager … because I am not so sure that I can say the same thing when describing how that manager felt about the VP.

What I mean is, I strongly suspect that manager — and perhaps a critical mass of that management team — did not trust that VP.

You now should immediately wonder if I am talking about the character/intent aspect or the capability/results aspect.  Do I mean that the management team is questioning this leader’s motivation?  Or perhaps I mean that they have lost confidence in this leader’s ability to lead them effectively?

This is why this trust and confidence distinction is so important I think.

It doesn’t matter if we’re looking up at our leaders and expressing a lack of trust in their leadership, or if we’re looking down and expressing a lack of confidence in our teams … or we’re looking across at peers … the inferred opinion, overwhelmingly,  is one of questioning motivation; intention; character.

And that sets in motion cascading actions that take everyone further away from productivity and effectiveness.

Consider:  Given near constant changes in expectations, it should be no surprise that at slices in time we actually are incompetent.

And when there are skill and knowledge and process gaps, if there aren’t timely on target investments to build capability — and here I’m thinking governance, policy, structure, process, technology, and training — we increasingly underperform.

It’s almost always about shortfalls in capability.  Ill-intent and poor character are very definitely the exception.

So it’s not really not trusting!  It’s almost always having no confidence.

To actualize this thinking, my always-a-work-in-progress behavior change — with partners, and clients, and friends, and family — is to be more explicit when I generically express a lack of trust, and to have a strong bias toward inferring a competence/capability problem instead of a motivation/intention problem.

And here’s what that might sound like —

I trust what you’re doing; I believe you want to do the right thing for the right reasons.  I just don’t have high confidence in your current ability to do what needs to be done, and to get the results that are expected.

Let’s talk about this …

*     *     *     *     *

It wasn’t just fourteen years of pondering (!) that led me to this newfound ability to articulate why trust and confidence aren’t the same thing.

It was my participation a few months ago in a training session on Stephen M. R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust.  The concepts, exercises, and tools raised my capability …

I can’t help but wonder if that manager next to me in that meeting simply attributed my response to a knee-jerk defense of my client.  In other words, questioning my motivation … and, by extension, my character.

I’m sure you can see how this could very well be so …

Trust, and confidence.