Understanding the Nature of Trust

July 8, 2010 7:18 pm Published by

I wrote about trust in business relationships a few months ago. But the issue of trust in relationships keeps coming up again and again in the work I do. Really, it is the lack of trust that continues to reappear. The issue is so foundational to healthy relationships, I feel compelled to write on the topic again – and explain the nature of trust more deeply.

What is trust, really? One definition is: “to place confidence in” or “rely on”.

Recently, I have worked with families, family businesses, couples, parents & teens, Boards of Directors (numerous ones) where a number of individuals within these systems don’t trust one another. And, unfortunately, the problem is that they have learned not to trust. That is, in many cases there was some level of trust previously that has now been undermined.

How does this happen?

Let’s first talk about some key components that are needed for trust to exist. One model defines trust as being comprised of three core components: competency, reliability, and looking out for your interests. Let’s look at each component more closely.

Competency. As I have stated previously, trust is situation-specific. Trust can only truly be defined within a context. No adult (except foolishly) trusts someone for all things in all situations. [Children may, but I have to think about that.] This is because no one is competent in every skill needed in life.

I may trust my financial advisor to develop a balanced approach to investing my savings, but I am not going to entrust my body to him to do heart surgery – because that is not his area of competency. We trust people in situations for which we believe they are competent.

Reliability. Part of trust has to do with the belief that a person is going to “be there” when they are supposed to. An employer expects a worker to show up for work day after day. A child expects their mother to “be there” when they need them. When we have a team working together on a project, we expect our team members to show up and be prepared for their role. Conversely, you may have a gifted and talented team member who really shines during presentations, but if they occasionally are late to meetings, come not prepared, or don’t show at all, then your trust for them in those situations is seriously undermined.

Looking out for your interests. If an advisor for your business is highly competent and reliable, but you are not sure they are primarily considering your interests in the work they are doing for you, you probably have an undertow of mistrust in your interactions with them. This is at the heart of the problem of trust in many business relationships – there are competing interests among various individuals and groups. And if you are not convinced that your interests are being considered (at least as highly as others’ interests), then it will be difficult for you to fully entrust your situation to others without seriously evaluating how they will benefit from the transaction.

From this perspective, trust is much like a three-legged stool. You can have two of the legs, but the stool won’t function without all three. Let’s examine each scenario:

Competency + Reliability – Looking Out For Your Interests. This combination leads to mistrust of the other person’s motives. No matter how well they can perform, you always feel like you have to “watch your back” so you won’t be taken advantage of.

Competency + Looking Out For Your Interests – Reliability. This is the “I just wish …” scenario. You have a competent individual whom you trust their desire to help you. But they just can’t keep it together to show up reliably (or on time), be prepared, and follow through on commitments made. You would like to partner with them, but you are concerned about the ramifications when they let you down.

Reliability + Looking Out For Your Interests – Competency. These are quality people who are faithful, will show up when they say they will, and they want to help you out. But they just don’t have the skills, training or experience needed to get the job done at the quality level you need. Often they are “over-reaching” their skill and ability level out of a desire to help (or to grow professionally), and as a result, often others need to come in and help finish the job.

Trust rarely is “all or nothing”. Remember, trust is situation-specific. In most of our relationships, our willingness to trust (or not trust) is not a black-and-white, “all or nothing” position. Rather, there are certain situations that we would be willing to trust the person, and there are other circumstances where we would not be willing to trust them.

This is an important point because in meetings I often hear people say, “I don’t trust him”, or “I’m sorry, but I just can’t trust her” – as if it is a carte blanche position. I work hard at helping people reframe both their thinking and their speech – to more clearly delineate “for what” they currently are unwilling to trust the other person. (“Currently” is an important word as well, because we want to frame the situation whereby the other person could potentially demonstrate they are trustworthy, and be trusted in the future in a similar situation.)

The Creation of Mistrust. An important question is: how do individuals come to mistrust others in their lives (family members, business partners, colleagues, suppliers)? The obvious answer is: “from a lack of one (or more) of the three requisite ingredients for trust.” And this is true. [I would propose that a lack of reliability is a common source of mistrust, especially in personal relationships, while doubt about the other person’s genuine concern for your interests is a more common source in business-related relationships.]

But a closer examination of relationships characterized by mistrust actually leads to some additional sources.

Lack of adequate, clear communication. Unfortunately, mistrust can develop through a lack of information communicated, or communicated clearly. How often do you hear, in the midst of a conflict, someone say, “Oh! I didn’t realize that”, or “Well, if I would have known that I would have reacted differently.”

Guilt by association. Some business professions have a reputation for being largely self-interested (used car salesmen, professionals who sell life insurance) – that their primary goal is to make a sale, whether the product is what you want , need or not. This puts trustworthy individuals in these professions at a disadvantage. They must work harder to demonstrate that they are considering the interests of the potential customer in the transaction they are proposing.

Misunderstanding of the other person’s intent. In situations where self-interest can be a factor, and where there has not been a long-standing trusting relationship, the misinterpretation of motives can easily occur. Many times people mistrust others because they have a misunderstanding of the potential benefits that might be realized, and think the person is acting primarily from self-interest.

Mismatch of expectations. Sometimes relationships are strained with one party’s expectations not met by another’s well-intended actions. If a friend volunteers to help decorate the banquet room for a fund-raising event, and the quality of the work is below your expectations, tension can arise. Often this is the result of lack of clear communication about what is expected.

A summary word: trust is easily lost, especially when people quit communicating with one another. Whenever possible, if you believe another person is struggling with trusting you in a situation, be proactive and find out what the issue is. I think you will find that the beginnings of mistrust can quickly be corrected either through an apology (if you have not followed through on a commitment made), clarifying your actions and intent, or coming to an understanding of unmet expectations and how these might be addressed in the future.

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July 8, 2010 7:18 pm


  • Rodney says:

    Thanks Paul.

    Question for you. How would you balance or factor in the need to “look out for the interests of the organization” ? Especially when the interests of the organization’s are in conflict with the interests of the individual working in the organization? As a person that manages others at work, I need to be reliable, competent, look out for them, and look out for the organization.


  • Paul says:

    Rodney, great question. It really depends on the “hat” you are wearing — which role or perspective are you thinking from? Having worked in a number of organizations, including non-profit social service agencies, I encourage people to first take care of themselves. Initially, this sounds selfish, but my perspective is: If you don’t take care of you, who will? And if you burn out as a manager/employee, how does that help the organization? Organizations have a life of their own, and they have an amazing ability to continue to exist over time — unfortunately, using or “eating up” willing employees who will sacrificially give until they have nothing left. The employee burns out, leaves, and is replaced by someone else — and the organization moves on. So I think employees must first take care of their own (or their family’s) interests.

    On the other hand, managers must think of what is best for the organization. And sometimes they have to communicate clearly what is needed from personnel, what the expectations are, and if the employee can’t do what the organization needs or wants, there becomes a parting of the employee/employer relationship. Either the person voluntarily chooses to leave because they are unwilling (or unable) to give what the organization wants, or they are released because they can’t get the job done at the level required.

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