What is Trust?

Picture this: Lucy has convinced Charlie Brown to run up to kick the football while she is holding it. Charlie races toward the ball and just before he kicks it, Lucy pulls it away – again.

Of course, Charlie kicks nothing but air and winds up on his back with a thud; humiliated and disappointed – again.

Lucy has convinced Charlie yet again to trust her – that this time she will not pull the ball away and Charlie will not kick the air – but she really has a different agenda in mind. Charlie knows in his head that Lucy has pulled the ball away many times in the past, but wants to trust her, so he agrees. You know how it ends…thud.

Trust. Is it absolute or are there different levels? Can it fluctuate up or down the levels?

Consider trust in these circumstances:

  • A baby trusting her parents,

  • A person who is blind trusting their ‘seeing eye dog’,

  • A military squad trusting each other with their lives,

  • A group doing Outward Bound trusting other members to keep them safe during the trust fall,

  • A business colleague sharing confidential information with you, trusting that you will not reveal what he has said,

  • A sales person trying to close the sale asking you to trust him,

  • A casual conversation with someone who prefaces a revelation with “trust me”.

These items are about one person ‘trusting’ another, however, going down the list the strength of that trust drops from absolute to nonexistent. The baby’s trust is unconditional and the blind person’s trust in the seeing eye dog is earned unconditional – while sales person’s request is met with skepticism and the casual ‘trust me’ is merely rhetorical.

The Lucy and Charlie example shows the two aspects of trust – emotional and logical. Lucy has shown many times she has her own agenda and Charlie knows that from experience but really wants to trust her this time so he can accomplish his goal – logic and emotion.

In organizations, trust is reflected in its evolved culture – from accumulated experience.

Think about an organization:

  • does management ‘trust’ the employees?

  • do the employees ‘trust’ management?

  • do either ‘trust’ the customers?

  • does the customer ‘trust’ the organization and its people?

With this in mind, consider:

Ritz-Carlton hotel gives their employees the ability to commit several thousand dollars without prior approval to satisfy an unhappy guest’s problem; a similar policy of customer satisfaction is practiced at Neiman-Marcus. Or what about Zappo’s full refund for a year from purchase, including cost of shipping.

How do their employees and customers feel about these businesses?

Kmart (and other retailers) say they want complete customer satisfaction, but have a hardy (and inflexible) list of conditions on that complete satisfaction. How do their customers feel about the store and, as a result, how do the employees feel about the customers?

I have found that leaders influence trust – from doing what they say and saying what they will do – ‘walking the talk’ to the way they choose to have the organization conduct business. Like smiling at a baby gets a smile in return, demonstrating trust in others elevates their trust in you and the organization. Keeping in mind trust has both an emotional and logical aspect – the effective leader must address how the customers and employees feel and react, as well as how each benefits.

Some additional thoughts about trust:

I believe fundamental honesty is the keystone of business. ~Harvey S. Firestone

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. ~Ernest Hemingway

Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Trust, but verify. ~Ronald Reagan (from an old Russian proverb)

As I see it, trust is in the framework of all successful organizations and it does not get there by happenstance. Successful leaders work hard to instill it in all aspects of the entity and in every individual, not as a tool or a technique, but as a fundamental belief.

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Mark Hammer

Writers in the field like to distinguish between various dimensions or forms of trust. The most basic differentiation would be between trust in someone’s competence, and trust in someone’s motives. So, I may trust you to do a meticulous job at whatever you do, but I wouldn’t trust you as far as I cold throw you. Conversely, I may trust that you will always act in my best interests, or in the interests of the common good, but perceive you as rather inept. Not necessarily a well-intentioned idiot, but unable to have your actions keep pace with your intentions.

Personally, I like to add a third form on top of that, which I guess could be described as instrumental trust, and is more of a person-x-situation interaction. I have faith in your motives, I have faith in your competence, but I have no faith in your ability to get XYZ done, given the circumstances or other players involved.

Another sort of trust is trust in authenticity or accuracy, perhaps best exemplified by the baby’s trust in their parent/s. Not sure if you know of, or remember, the “visual cliff” studies conducted with infants. Kid crawls across a thick glass surface and reaches a point where the visual cues underneath the glass suggest they have just arrived at a big drop. Their hands tell them one thing, but their eyes tell them another. What to do? Invariably, the infant looks up to the parent, and searches for cues in the parent’s face. If the parent looks calm and encouraging, then the infant’s hands are deemed correct and they crawl. If the parent looks alarmed, then the ambiguity is resolved in terms of what the kid’s eyes tell them. They are relying on the parent to accurately, and authentically, convey the state of things.

In some respects, I suppose this is slightly confounded with both competence and motives. You might misrepresent the world to me because of evil or manipulative intent. You might misrepresent because you’re incompetent. Either way, though, it is something that I, as toddler, need to trust you for; you are my eyes and ears and memory for a world I don’t quite have a handle on yet.