The Decision to Trust Model

Last week, I posted some questions I had about creating organizational trust. Trust has been on my mind lately because of my research in complexity leadership, innovation, and culture change. A common theme in all these fields is building trust. Well, I don’t believe you can directly build trust. I believe it emerges from the right organizational environment, good teambuilding, and enlightened leadership. Given this, what exactly can leaders do to best let organizational trust emerge?

In The Decision to Trust: How Leaders Create High-Trust Organizations, Robert Hurley lists ten factors in his Decision to Trust Model:

  1. Risk Tolerance
  2. Adjustment
  3. Power
  4. Situational Security
  5. Similarities
  6. Interests
  7. Benevolent Concern
  8. Capability
  9. Predictability/Integrity
  10. Communication

The first three factors deal with the trustor’s personal characteristics. If a person has a low level of risk tolerance or are not well-adjusted, they are less likely to be trusting. A person who feels powerless is also less likely trust. Hurley (2012) explains his inclusion of these factors by arguing that leaders should focus on helping their employees develop their personal capability for trust as well as establishing an environment for trust.

The remaining seven factors are the situational factors. Situational security (Factor 4) deals with how much uncertainty there is in a particular situation. For example, employees would feel less secure in a RIF situation and thus are less likely to be trusting. This is tied into benevolent concern (Factor7) in which people are more likely to trust a leader who they know will consider the employees’ interests over their own. It also follows that a trustworthy leader is one who is perceived as capable (Factor 8).

Similarities (Factor 5), interests (Factor 6), and predictability/integrity (Factor 9) are also closely related. Similarities refer to social identity theory in which we are more likely to trust people who are most like us. Along with trusting people who are more like us, we are also trust people who share similar interests and whose behavior is predictable based on past experience.

Of the seven situational factors, communication (Factor 10) is the most important. As Hurley (2012) argues, good communication can create trust even if the other six factors are low whereas poor communication can foster mistrust despite high levels of security, similarities, interests, benevolent concern, capability, and predictability. This makes a great deal of sense because it takes a relationship to have trust and you can’t have a relationship (good or bad) without communication.

Building trust requires more than just one-way communication. It takes two-way communication or engagement. Leaders who want to create organizational trust should start by developing their employees’ abilities to trust through empowerment. Then, leaders should engage in constant dialogue where they demonstrate benevolent concern and integrity in their actions. Leaders should also foster a sense of community where employees can align their personal interests with organizational goals.

”As resources and talent become increasingly scarce, low-trust people, teams, companies, and nations will find themselves increasingly at risk” (Hurley, 2012, p. 197). Thus, the imperative for government leaders to create high-trust organizations. This is the best way to serve government employees and the American public.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this posting are solely mine and do not reflect the views and opinions of my employers or any organizations I belong to.

Hurley, R.F. (2012). The decision to trust: How leaders create high-trust organization. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Jen Zingalie

I have to say building trust most definitely begins with the leadership- and it has to be a leadership willing to change. Trust can’t begin without facing some truths and that is difficult for many because truth is not one dimensional. Communication is also a big one but it must be an aligned message–otherwise it’s just chaos.

Anne R. Urbanski

I think this could also be applied to risk communication between an organization (e.g. government agency) and people who are very interested in a controversial issue.

Bill Brantley

@Jen – In complete agreement. The seven situational factors depend on the leadership creating the environment for organizational trust. And you are also correct that there has to be an aligned message – especially from the leadership.

Bill Brantley

@Anne – I haven’t considered that but it does make sense. It would be interesting to see this transformed into a citizen engagement model.

Anne R. Urbanski

@Bill – I wonder if IAP2 (International Association for Public Participation) has developed anything based on this model.

Mark Hammer

I think that the model, or at least the weighting of factors, will vary as a function of how new the leader is. All of the factors listed are essentially categories of information the “truster” has to work with in deciding to rely on the “trustee”. Experience with either the organization, or with the leader in question, or both, will drive what sorts of information the truster has available to them, in what quantity, and is more likely to rely on. It may take only a few superficial elements for a given leader to win the trust of a new employee, but substantially more to win the trust of a long-time employee. For example, consider what persuades a first-time voter vs a long-time voter.

I’m unfamiliar with Hurley’s writings, but I should think the decision-to-trust is necessarily a dynamic phenomenon. It would be a mistake to consider trust only in terms of a steady-state.

Peter Sperry

I would tend to think #9 Predictability/Integrity would be far and away the most important. If a leader or organization has a track record of lying, promising more than they can deliver, making excuses, denying the painfully obvious or engaing in over reactive theater in response to negative events; they will quickly lose the trust of their subordinates and/or the public.

Mark Hammer

Which is precisely why I emphasize the dynamic aspect. If the leader is new to the organization and has no such track record, or the employee is new to the organization and has no such experience with the leader in question, then what you allude to may play a much smaller role.

When it comes to organizational behaviour, tenure is one of those variables that is regularly under-examined by researchers. Not that it reflects any sort of willful superficiality on the part of researchers. It’s just hard to devise and test hypotheses about something when one is dealing with smaller organizations (where statistical power may be an issue) or conducting research with undergraduates in simulated organizational contexts. Conceivably larger-scale studies involving big public employers, or possibly meta-analysis of many smaller organizations, might lead to some useful insights.

Robert Hurley

Trust is government, business and the media are at their lowest levels in 30 years. The research is very clear that when we lose trust we lose cooperation and this is the beginning of decline of any institution. My three part solution 1) teach people to make better trust decisions so as to penalize the untrustworthy 2) teach leaders how to earn trust by modeling trustworthiness 3) show leaders how to embed trustworthiness in the systems they lead. Better get started, it will be a long and important journey.

Raul Espinosa

Bill, I enjoyed reading ‘The Decision to Trust Model’ and believe it can be effectively applied to the government (federal, state and local) provided their abusive regulations are eliminated. When it comes to government contracting, the government and I emphasize federal, state and local, have been using regulations to purposely restrict small and disadvantaged businesses from accessing $700 Billion in contracts (at the federal level) and $3 Trillion in contracts (at the State and local government.) Are you mad yet?

Let me suggest, for background purposes, you read my OP-ED against the Exemptions so you realize why you cannot trust the government, http://bit.ly/vROY11

Your model would be extremely valuable and I would welcome ways to collaborate to mutual benefit. Let me suggest you consider joining the NFIB Coalition for Sensible Regulations, http://www.sensibleregulations.org and rally your readers and followers to use the rallying cry made famous by the movie Network except with a caveat: “I’m as mad as hell at the regulations and I’m not going to take their abuse anymore.”

I’m confident that legislators and government officials confronted with such feedback will be influenced to look into your model for a solution.

Keep up the good work. I commend you and thank you for making a difference.