On the Nature of Trust

Sometimes I feel like a nit-picky lawyer. I regularly latch onto subtle semantic differences between otherwise similar concepts and go to town. I refuse to accept wholesale blame for this; after all this is a large part of my training as a psychologist.

It depends on what your defenition of "is" is.

It depends on what your defenition of "is" is.

I started thinking about this as I read Lisa Rosendahl’s recent post about trust. It was a warm, heartfelt anecdote about her own experiences with trust. Like all good writers, Lisa extracts lessons from her personal life and applies them to a new setting- in this case, the workplace. For the life of me, I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I kept thinking how I define trust a bit differently than she has and how what she describes is closer to my definition of confidence. Does the difference matter? Are the differences meaningful enough to be applied to our organizational lives? I’m going to say “yes” to both (this would be a short post otherwise). Here’s how I see it:

Trust is not unilateral. Trust is not taken or demanded. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think trust can be given either. Trust happens. It is developed over time as a result of experience. Trust develops between two or more parties, be they individuals or groups of individuals. Trust unfolds over time as a result of mutually beneficial and reciprocal social exchanges. In short, I cannot trust that someone will reciprocate until I know that person has already established a pattern of that behavior with me. Despite its experiential basis, trust seems to be primarily affective in nature (yes I know the line between cognition and affect are blurry at the best of times).

Confidence is closely related to trust and is often used interchangeably. However, these are different in a meaningful way. Trust is a “feeling,” while confidence is more of a cognitive evaluation. The important thing here is that confidence is easier to establish. I don’t need personal experience with someone to be reasonably confident about reciprocity (think of it as a less evil credit score). I can scan that person’s past interaction with others to calculate the chances you will reciprocate. So, I can be confident about you before I trust you. Confidence is more evidence-based and is probably easier to generalize across situations. Trust simply isn’t as flexible. A caveat for advanced readers: If you are familiar with literature on attitude change (like work by Robert Cialdini), you probably know that once you decide to engage in social exchange, you may commit yourself sufficiently enough to trust anyway.

So what does this mean for organizational behavior? Quite simply, do not expect trust right from the beginning of the relationship. You have no experiential basis on which to develop deep, emotional expectations of mutual benefit. But don’t worry, it will happen over time. If you treat people fairly in a consistent manner, people will learn to trust you. This applies to both organizations, managers, leaders and individual contributors. If you want people to trust and support you during the tough times, you need previous examples of reciprocity. Build trust early and you will reap the benefits of a trusting relationship. Perhaps most importantly, confidence is easier to restore than trust. If you betray your people, getting it back will take time and effort, so think very hard before you squander this important aspect of interpersonal relationships.

If you want an omelet, you must crack some eggs, but there are only so many times you can crack them.

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~ by George Guajardo on August 11, 2009.

One Response to “On the Nature of Trust”

  1. See, now you’ve got me thinking. I am a hair splitter when in comes to words and I had not even considered “confidence” in these terms. Nice take on the conversation. I do have to say that for me, trust is a heart string puller and my heart strings were pulling the 40 minutes the kid was out of my hands and in someone else’s.

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