Suzanne Massie, an American writer, met with President Ronald Reagan many times. She taught him the Russian proverb, Trust, but verify (The Reagan Years” by Suzanne Massie).
She advised him that “The Russians like to talk in proverbs. It would be nice of you to know a few”.
The proverb was adopted as a signature phrase by Reagan. He used it when discussing U.S. relations with the Soviet Union.
Reagan used the phrase to emphasize the verification procedures that would enable both sides to monitor compliance with the proposed INF Treaty. The Treaty banned all of the two nations’ land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers with ranges of 310 to 3,429 miles. At the signing of it on December 8, 1987 his counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev said “You repeat that at every meeting.”
Reagan answered, “I like it”.
Since the time that Reagan first used it, the phrase has become commonly used. It deals with and has implications in many things. And it made an impression on me both in business and in life.
In my early career and before I heard this saying, I was very naïve and trusting of everybody.
I embodied the thought that, “Ignorance is bliss”. I had no reason not to trust people. Up until that time people had been very direct with me. I knew who liked me and who didn’t and I dealt appropriately with each.
As I became more experienced, I learned a painful lesson. Even though I was not trying to be abrasive or confrontational, many people were not being upfront and honest with me. That happened for a variety of reasons that included:
- The person believed that he/she was being truthful. They are wrong and just didn’t know it.
- The person knew that there was a degree of uncertainty, but was unwilling to share this. There was a fear that by doing so, I may not be agreeable to moving forward. Things need to get done now. If I balked, time will be lost and that was intolerable to them.
- The individual knew it was wrong. Being political, when something adverse happened, that person was the first to blame me. This type of person was not my friend and tried stick it to me to protect them self and to get ahead.
In each of these examples, the outcome is not good for you. You have trusted that the information you are receiving is good and accurate. You have faith that you are dealing with professionals who are upstanding individuals. Your company espouses teamwork and collaboration. So no one would dare cause problems for you, right?
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
There is no reason you cannot be skeptical about the information you are given.
Nor is it wrong to ask questions. If the person cannot give satisfactory answers, or is hesitant, there is a problem lurking. That doesn’t mean that you question things forever. At some point either you accept what you or told or not. And then you move on, based on the best information that you have.
I was a volunteer board member for a nonprofit. We regularly received financial information from the organization’s CFO. Whenever she was questioned about a certain aspect, she could not answer the question. It was as though someone had given her the numbers she was reporting on, even though it was her work. Yet, she had little or no detail and could not explain any details. If there was ever a red flag that her report needed verification that was it.
Questioning things is not an indictment of the person you are questioning.
It is a good communication practice. Positive questioning brings about an increased understanding of what is being said or presented. This is a basic precept in the learning process. How many new concepts have you heard through schooling or in your business practice? No doubt hundreds or thousands.
Too many times we let them go by, even though we didn’t understand what was being said. Clarification was needed. And sometimes what was said had some inaccuracy to it. It is better to get it corrected than to leave with a wrong idea or practice in mind.
Questioning should be for learning and clarification purposes, not as a challenge or confrontation. If it is done in this vain and the person objects to being qustioned, it is usually because:
- That person knows there are inaccuracies. It now has to be explained why these were not caught before.
- It is felt that whatever they say is gospel and no one should question it, even if it turns out to be wrong.
- The individual is purposely promoting something that may be harmful to you.
None of these are good or acceptable reasons. Yet, each can bring about problems. If everything is taken at face value and is not questioned or challenged, trouble lies ahead. We all have different ideas and points of view. These are supposedly built on a strong foundation of facts. If not, then they are just opinions. Opinions are just that. What makes one opinion better or stronger than the other? And without facts, they are dangerous and can cause harm.
It is incumbent that we separate out fact from opinion.
Especially when what we have been told does not make sense. And, it is in conflict with our beliefs or knowledge. That doesn’t mean that what we thought we knew to be a fact was entirely correct. It means that new facts have emerged that change our base of knowledge.
There was once a belief that the world was flat. That belief changed as explorers tested out that certainty and found that it was not true. Science and scientific study also progressed and helped to bear this out. By not questioning the belief as espoused by those in charge, exploration would not have happened. And the world may be a different place than it is today.
Trust but verify is an important part of my thought process.
In my career, I have been told many things that were either inaccurate or downright false. Some of these came from people that I trusted to give me accurate information and guidance.
For instance, in my first job after college, I had a boss who wanted to build his own little empire. He felt that by keeping his young, star employees intact he would have a super department. And he would then make a name for himself in the company.
I was working with a number of other departments and the managers in each liked me and my work. They were always complimentary of me. I met with my manager. I said that I was impressed with them and their departments. And I would like to talk to them about potentially working for them. It would give me more exposure and was an advancement from my current position.
Instead of encouraging me to do so he told me that none of them was a good fit for me. He also said that there was no interest on their part to consider me for a position with them. I trusted him and what he said. After all he was my manager, had much more experience than I and he was looking out for me.
None of that turned out to be true. One of the managers finally approached me and asked me why I would not talk to him about working in his department. I told him what my manager had told me. He said that wasn’t true.
I went back to my manager to discuss this. He told me that what the other manager had told me wasn’t true. Plus he accused me of going behind his back. I left that talk confused. So I did a bit more digging. I spoke to some of the people in the department and they confirmed that they would love to have me work with them. I checked in the other departments and they said the same thing.
That was my first lesson in trust, but verify.
I had trusted my manager, but he lied to me repeatedly. He knew others wanted to talk to me about working for them. He hid this from me and lied to me about it. He was not looking out for me and my interests, but for his own. I could no longer trust or work for him. In a short space of time I found a job outside of the company and left.
That was in 1979, before Reagan was president and made the declaration, “trust but verify”. It became a notable saying and I now had something to hang my hat on. I did and have ever since.
On occasion, I slip up and don’t follow this thought. When I don’t, it usually has consequences that aren’t the best. In working with a client in the not too distant past, I headed a team. We were working on a project to lay out a new warehouse for them. They were establishing a pick and pack operation that could bring them new business. They were initially going to do it on a small scale. As it grew they wanted to offer it to all their contract clients.
We were working on projections of what the business would / could, be. From that we were to develop a plan to add racking and shelving to store the various products by client. We would start with a small operation and expand as new clients were added .
The two others on the team were both experienced at this work. They had done it many times before. They put all of the data together and devised the plan. I asked them if they had completed everything and were ready to present their findings. They assured me that they had. Trusting them, I didn’t check out the plan they were to present.
The meeting with the client occurred. It was one of the worst meetings I have ever conducted or been a part of. The information was incomplete. My team members contradicted each other and their findings. The client was not happy and told me so in no uncertain terms. I couldn’t apologize enough. I was totally embarrassed. The owner and I went way back so he forgave me, but I had let him down.
Even when you are dealing with people you know well and trust, you still need to verify. Especially as a leader you need to do this. No matter who is at fault, you own it. The responsibility is ultimately yours. I forgot and I paid for it. It reinforced that no matter who you are dealing with and in what circumstance, you need to trust but verify.