“Trust, but Verify”

It was a phrase my father used to say when I did chores around the house.

He wanted to make sure I wasn’t trying to get away with something (like phoning it in or doing a half-assed job). I never did want to do the work, so he was right to do it too.

Over time it occurred to me that fully doing the work is easier than slacking off and rushing at the end– a lot easier. It took me a long time, but I finally realized that the amount of energy I spent avoiding and lying left me in a lot of bad situations– and the stress was never worth it. So now when I have presentation to do, I work on them ahead of time instead of at the last minute. I write every day instead of trying to catch up from lazing around. All this stuff really helps me live a more balanced, happier life.

But something happens to you when you’re being checked on all the time. I think it makes you into someone that tries to get away with something. You know how you’re getting checked, and you know what they’re missing, so you start cutting corners where you can. It becomes habitual.

Obviously, this needed to change when I stopped working for other people. Social pressure still works… but what if it’s not enough? What if you’re like “meh, who cares if I lose that client, damn the consequences”?

I think we know the answer is– we get a world exactly like what we have now. A world of doing just enough, where we get away with whatever we can, as often as we can. James Kunstler talked about what effect this had on suburbia at TED 2005.

What’s amazing is that the only reason he can be so angry about it is because the suburbia he despises is visible, like me moving half the lawn. But most of this phoning it in isn’t– until much later. Like the bad roadwork Montreal is infamous for, the individuals responsible are long gone by the time we find out.

I still don’t get what the solution is. I need to be checked on. You do too, even though you don’t like it. Nature’s way is to find shortcuts, and that was fine when the damage we could do was small, but it isn’t small anymore. It’s massive, because humanity is massive, and we’re all doing our part.

I think the answer is to reconnect us to the consequences of our work ethic. But how can we do that in a world that rewards quarterly results? Can it even be done?





11 responses to ““Trust, but Verify””

  1. JK Avatar

    Weird. Derek Sivers had a post yesterday about the same thing. With the same title. http://sivers.org/trust-but-verify

  2. John Meadows Avatar

    I think you hit the nail at the end of your post, where you mention connecting reward with work ethic, and we don’t see much of that today. If we look around us today, we see senior management compensation completely out of touch with reality, government bailouts to fund billions in corporate bonuses, athletes winning by cheating and drug doping, etc. In short, there are very few positive role models that people can look to to see a connection between honest, ethical effort, and success. Many people feel powerless to change their lot, regardless of how hard they try. They feel the deck is stacked against them, and so think “why should I try any harder than I have to.”

  3. Julien Avatar

    @JK: Heh, not much of a coincidence really. I saw his post and it got me thinking because of the way my father always said it, so I wrote something. 🙂

    I actually linked to him in the post, in case you missed that.

    @John Meadows: I’m not sure a reward system such as we have can be at all dismantled. There’s something to be said for intrinsic reward but when you can walk away with, say, 5 years salary in 6 months or something due to a way that bonuses are structured, why wouldn’t you? You’d be stupid (unless it were unethical).

    Never mind that when we do see examples of hard work, etc, they’re usually unsung heroes, ie people that aren’t rich or famous. What are we telling people about the value of hard work if we aren’t praising them?

  4. JK Avatar

    That’s cool that you linked to him. It wasn’t there in the version of the post that was in google reader. That happens when you revise posts sometimes after publishing, the revisions don’t appear in the feed or something.

  5. CT Moore Avatar

    Because I’ve worked in places where passive-aggressive micro-management (PAMM) was the rule, I want to share an insight about how being mico-managed or constantly checked-up on affects your work ethic.

    I think the reason your work ethic suffers is because when someone doesn’t trust you even when you have given them no reason not to, their opinion stops mattering to you.

    It’s kind of like they “entrusted” something to you, but don’t “trust” you, so they mustn’t trust their own judgement (or something). And how can you trust someone who doesn’t trust themselves.

    Who knows, maybe there’s even a marketing component to it — i.e. giving them a throwaway option. You know they’re going to pick at something even if its perfect, so you give them something obvious to speed up the process and make your life easier.

  6. Bernard Dahl Avatar

    Such a valid “thinking out loud” topic. Your question on the subject of rewarding quarterly results could be turned around; often fear guides the (in)actions and judgment of people – the fear of being punished for NOT meeting quarterly or monthly results.

    Both sentences share the words REWARD and RESULTS, perhaps those are a good place to start – perhaps they shouldn’t be so closely intertwined – I wonder if that is at all possible…

  7. Bernard Dahl Avatar

    Right… I edited the sentence and took out “reward”. Kinda ruins my point. crap. 😉

  8. Whitney Avatar

    Is the answer of finding one or two external people, like a Board of advisors, you voice your goals to and they help keep you accountable, check in, and see how you’re coming? A support network? I find that with the fitness stuff, having a trainer I am obligated to see twice a week, having measurements taken in regular intervals, and having periodic bigger goals keeps me on the right path. There’s enough checking in to be helpful and measure progress, but not enough to seem badgering or in my face. Very much a trust and verify model.
    I think this same metric can work for all of us in the entrepreneurial space- we just have to find the people who are willing to meet on a reglar basis to be this accountability group.

  9. Ric Dragon Avatar

    Makes me think of some of Dan Ariely’s talks… about how most people will cheat a little. May understanding that tendency helps?

  10. Jessica Fenlon Avatar

    We each are responsible for our own achievement kung-fu. Gotta shift attitude a bit to get into a rhythm of making excellence. Its an attitude outside of reward & punishment.

    Its not about what you get (short term paycheck) its about what you give (what I am creating for my community). Its about cultivating a practice of making excellence all the time.

    It is the kung-fu of walking away from being driven by impulse (i.e. responding to short term discomfort/difficulty as a problem-solving schema). Am I reacting to some input? Or am I consciously creating according to a higher set of values I have decided to act on?

    Some people poison themselves by routinely avoiding accountability (a short-term solution to the discomfort of being confronted by others about the difficulties they are making for others). What this means is, don’t cheat. Not because its wrong, but because it turns you into a cheater. Treat yourself with respect.

  11. Jessica Fenlon Avatar

    P.S. Valuable post!

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