Can you have a successful collaboration without trust?

I mean any collaboration: with another company, with a colleague, inside a team, with your boss or with your subordinates. Can these collaborations be successful if there is no trust and respect between you and your counterpart?

Over the past years, I’ve seen many degrees of trust in collaborations, ranging from complete lack of trust to a very high degree of trust. The collaborations with the highest degree of trust are the smoothest ones. There is no need for control. You know your co-worker or partner will do the job, and they will do it well.

I remember one particular collaboration with another company fairly well. We jointly worked together for a major customer. Whenever the customer asked one of us a question, we would make sure it was answered by the party who was best equipped to answer it. We did not refer the customer to the other party: after hearing the question, we would tell the client that we would come back to them with the answer (if we could not immediately answer them). We would find out the answer among ourselves and respond to the question. Sometimes the questions were about technical details, then our partner – the manufacturer – would answer, sometimes the questions were about financial details, then we ourselves would respond to the customer.

By the way, this was a situation from the days before email. All immediate communications went through phone, so there was no way to copy each other in endless cc’s. We simply knew that whenever either one of us left a question to the other, the customer would be answered quickly and adequately. Only when official statements needed a confirmation in writing, we would send a letter or a fax (remember those?), and then the other would receive a copy.

What made this collaboration so highly efficient? A high level of trust between us. That confidence was partly built upon chemistry and respect, partly on sharing common goals, and partly simply doing what we said we would do. Our behavior was trustworthy, there was no need for control.

On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve seen collaborations that completely lacked trust, both collaborations between companies as well as between colleagues. Without trust or respect between the parties, they tried to cover the collaboration with high degrees of control. These collaborations did not last at all. Sooner or later one of the parties would leave, either forced or voluntarily.

Trust is one of my seven key success elements for collaboration. Without trust, collaboration can not be successful and control, or a contract, can not replace trust. I sometimes jokingly challenge with the statement “we don’t need a contract, we need trust”.

Read more about trust: