2. Trust to be trusted

Robert Greene's second law of power is to never put too much trust in friends and to learn how to use enemies.

Specifically, Greene warns us to be wary of mixing "friendship" with professional relationships. Even among the preeminently reasonable, "friendship" can fester into cronyism: you're more likely to hold those you like to lower standards or to avoid healthy confrontation in order to curry favor. "Enemies," in contrast, have something to prove to you. Bring them under your wing, and they will fight twice as hard to redeem themselves.

As with all of Greene's laws, there's a hint of truth here. "Friends" really can encourage the worst in each other. It might explain why, when corporates hire consultants for "rebalancing human capital" (or whatever euphemism for "firing people" happens to be in vogue), useless executives are safe while those on the work floor are sacrificed en masse. Why, at the end of it all, the bosses get to take home a restructuring bonus. Management really can suck.

However. . . .

You've probably already realized, by my use of quotes, that I take issue with Greene's definition of "friend." Excuse the ad hominem, but Greene seems to be using "friend" the way somebody might who's never actually had a "friend."

Here, we can take a lesson from the ancients, and go all the way back to Aristotle who described three types of friendship:

  1. Friends of utility: those who "love each other . . . in so far as some benefit accrues to them from each other.”"
  2. Friends of pleasure: those whose company we enjoy "not because of what they are in themselves, but because they are agreeable to us"
  3. Friends of good: those who "wish each alike the other’s good in respect of their goodness."

Greene's "friends" fall almost solely in the first category with perhaps a few stragglers in the second. His nihilism doesn't recognize anything so abstract as virtue. His cynicism doesn't recognize anything so sappy as loving an other for the sake of the other.

It is, of course, this "truer" friendship, we romantics have in mind when we speak of "friendship." The friendship of an Aristotle or a Seneca:

A man makes a friend, not "'for the purpose of having someone to come and sit beside his bed when he is ill or come to his rescue when he is hard up or thrown into chains,' but so that on the contrary he may have someone by whose bedside he himself may sit or whom he may himself release when that person is held prisoner by hostile hands. Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake." — Literature Notes/Books/Philosophy/Letters from a Stoic

While Greene's followers are busy magnifying their egos, the rest of us are busy trying to do the opposite: to shrink our heads and silence the incessant whining of our inner voice. Friendship is an exercise in ego death—in separating ourselves from ourselves.

A friendship out of appreciation for each other's virtue, built around the pursuit of mutual improvement, does not corrupt. It welcomes harsh truths and demands hard work.

But you don't need to have this perfect ideal of friendship to get the benefits. A Gallup study in the late '90s found that "I have a best friend at work" is a consistent correlate with employee retention, productivity, and profitability.1 It pays to mix friendships with professional relationships. Even normal (non-"best") friendships correlate positively with job productivity. Up to a point that is: too many friendships and your emotional exhaustion will offset the gains (Methot et al. 2015).

For anyone trying to build healthier relationships, "not putting too much trust in each other," is just about the worst advice you could give.

To build healthy relationships in any domain requires trust. With married couples, trust is a strong correlate of level of commitment, and it's reciprocated more often than expressions of love (Larzelere & Huston 1980). So too, trust is indispensable in professional relationships. Here it is especially trust between different occupational layers that matters (Cho & Park 2011).

All this may sound trite and obvious, but it's always harder to act it out in practice. Many of us have a natural reticence to trusting others. Though we obviously should not put our trust in everyone, we might do well to grant our closest companions yet more.

The importance of sacrificing the semblance of security for trust helps explain the cult of vulnerability of Brené Brown and collaborators. We need to be proactively vulnerable.

Larzelere & Huston (1980) identify two key parts of trust:

  1. Believing the other to be benevolent and truly want what is best for the other.
  2. Believing the other to be honest.

Over the long run, you can't fake either of these. Either you really do want what is best for the other, or acts of selfishness will slip through. Either you really are honest, or your lies will eventually contradict themselves and come tumbling down. You have to want what is best for the other before you can expect the other to want what is best for you. You have to be honest to get honesty.

It comes back to Seneca . . .

"If you wish to be loved, love." — Seneca



  1. The insertion of "best" was necessary to differentiate between "highly productive" and "mediocre" workgroups.