Contractual documentation fosters an atmosphere of trust and co-operation between parties in which fairness and mutual … oh, lordy, who am I kidding?
The seminar I was leading was going quite well; or at least, so I thought. It was with a small group of postgraduate students in their mid-20s. But a remark halfway through the session shook me. It was like a left uppercut; a punch in the solar plexus. I stumbled. All the more surprising was the way the young lady actually put the punchline …

My bright idea was to get these postgraduate students of building management talking about the word "trust". What role does trust play in building contracts? I thought I could coax these future industry leaders into considering contractual documentation not as bare rules, but as a piece of machinery operating within an atmosphere of trust between the umpteen contracting parties. This, I crowed, was the way to successful commercial construction. I puffed my chest out. One or two eyes gawped at me. One or two more glazed over.

"Trust!" I bellowed. "Tell me what it's made up of." I got a good response. "Honesty," said one student. "Honesty gives credibility." "Reliability," said another. "It breeds trust." "Co-operation and respect," was another contribution. "Dependability". "Competence". I was pleased by now; the contributions were coming thick and fast. "After all, if you can demonstrate that your team, your firm, your people, are competent in their task, the other people in the construction process will begin to trust your input." "Vital," said another student, "that people show openness and fairness to each other." "The ability to create mutual willingness to be dependent on each other." Wow, that was impressive.

Then we looked at personality traits, attitudes, and reciprocity. I put all this brainstorming stuff on the whiteboard. I asked about reputation. Yes, yes, said my students this was fundamental. I had seen the The Sunday Times survey of the 100 best firms to work for. Some construction names jumped out. Interior Services Group was somewhere near the top. Mace, the construction management enterprise, was number 50. Kier Group was close by, ahead of good old Marks & Spencer in the "best to work for" table. Mott MacDonald earned high marks. So, too, did some well-known construction industry solicitors. Reputation is very high on these people's agenda. "Trust me, I'm a builder," has surely got something going for it.

"It's all a load of old bull," came the quiet remark. She smiled beautifully when she said it. It was as though the back wheel of my Ferrari had clipped the kerb just as I was overtaking Michael Schumacher. What was she on about?

Well, it's like this: many people in commerce and especially in construction use the process and the contract as an opportunity. The idea of building relationships, being open and being fair, isn't on the agenda. There is no real need to cosy up to the next person. Business is frequently driven by opportunists. I wrote "opportunism" on the whiteboard.

Another student chimed in: "Business and the business of construction is an art form." I asked him if he meant that it was a game. Yes, that's another way of putting it. Another student thought there were quite a number of construction people who resented having all this cosying up. Many "professionals" thought of themselves as the white-collar brigade, determined to look down on the contractors as the blue-collar mob. There was a "do as you're told" mentality in construction. It was matched by a resentful and often rude response.

Wait a minute, just hang on here. We were getting perilously close to the notion that commerce is an opportunity to "put one over" on the other bloke. You mean the "art form" included cheating? Sometimes. Others see it not as cheating but as an opportunity for fancy footwork, to dice, to pit your wits, steal a march or gain advantage. Indeed, the art form includes cosying-up to earn a benefit. There are people around that just don't want to pay their bills on time, or at all, or who want a discount. The game includes milking an error or omission of the other bloke for all it's worth.

The young woman pointed to the whiteboard on which I had scribbled all the elements of trust, and said quite simply: "That's not real life."

The snag is that she may actually be right. It may actually be the way we older people do behave. She has seen through us. I didn't ask her what she thought of us. I was winded, I was punctured. And I loved it.