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This article is about the pragmatics of trust: what it is, how to build it and how to repair it.

As I started to put my thoughts together I realized that what is true about trust in a couple relationship is also true for organizations and even for individuals alone.

A central theme

The issue of trust is central to human existence. All forms of individual, collective and organizational co-action depend on it. When we take a walk through the mall we trust our fellow shoppers not to attack us. When we make an electronic payment we trust several invisible organizations to carry out their functions without stealing from us.

Couples must trust one another. Corporations must build trust with their customers. Politicians must create enough trust to be elected. Otherwise there would be no families, no commerce, and no government. And just in case that sounds a bit like the promised land, remember there would be no ‘you’ either!

Strong trust promotes growth; betrayed trust kills it. Yet a quality which is so essential to life is often not deeply considered. I start with the kind of obvious statement to which we have all drawn exception at one time or another:

We are each responsible for maintaining trust.

How we collaborate in our own betrayal

“If you trick me once, you make a fool of me,” goes the old saying, concluding: “If you trick me twice, I make a fool of myself.”

The notion that we contribute to our own betrayal is a hard one to accept. “I trusted you!” is a deeply heartfelt complaint, perhaps more despairing because betrayal starts early in life and leaves deep and barely healed wounds.

However, only we can take the responsibility for failing to learn from our experience. This learning is not necessarily easy to do, because the dynamics of wishful thinking are complex and rooted in early learning. Fortunately, it seems to be only in certain parts of our lives that we allow dreamy unreality to overcome our learned knowledge.

For example, while we might repeat ‘mistakes’ in love, once we have eaten rotten meat and felt the consequences we try very hard to avoid doing it again. Similarly, while we might repeat ‘mistakes’ motivated by greed or addiction, if we break a leg by jumping off a fifteen foot wall, we are unlikely to have another go.

In other words, we are learning bio-machines and provided our processes are free of unconscious limitations, we will naturally improve our standard of operation. That means we can all learn to be more self-protective trusters and, perhaps, more trustworthy ourselves as well.

Only by understanding the dynamics of trust can we assess its likelihood, build it, maintain it, and restore it when it is broken.

That understanding begins with a story:

The bullfrog and the scorpion.

A scorpion and a bullfrog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back.
The frog asks: “How do I know you won’t sting me?”
The scorpion says: “Because if I do, I will die too.”
The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog.
The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp: “Why?”
Replies the scorpion: “Because I am a scorpion . . .”

The mistake the frog made here was in assuming that the scorpion operated on the same general assumptions about life as himself. This is precisely the mistake we make when we go back in the same way, to the same situation, time and again, despite experiencing repeated betrayals.

One way to avoid this is to recognize that trust is never absolute, but is always constrained by a number of factors. The most important of these is human nature. Just as frogs and scorpions are different in nature, so no two humans have the same nature. It therefore doesn’t make sense to deal with each of us as if everyone were a simple clone of ourselves. Just because you might truthfully say: “I could never do that!”, it doesn’t mean no-one else could.

However, once we know an individual’s nature we can expect them to behave in a predictable way. If, therefore, we are dealing with a thief, we can trust her to steal from us if given the opportunity. If we are dealing with an irresponsible person, we can trust him to be disregarding of our needs as well as his own.

We can also expect them to repeat their behavior unless they submit themselves to some form of profound behavior change process. Failing such an investment, if we continue to treat them as if they had magically changed, we will surely bring betrayal upon ourselves. We must learn to assess them first.

Assessing trustworthiness: the environment

Before we can say: “I trust you” and mean more than: “I hope I can trust you”, we need some criteria to be able to assess the trustworthiness of our ‘target’. It will nearly always be a subjective assessment, but should still be more accurate and self-protective than just guessing.

As part of that assessment process, we must apply assumptions about motivation and personal qualities. In a trusted person, we assume their motivations concerning the rights of others will be ethical, fair, and non-threatening.

Our assumptions around personal qualities govern the factors that allow people to trust and to be trusted. For example, trust requires qualities such as honesty, integrity, altruism and goodwill. Trustworthiness requires discretion, reliability, transparency, and predictability.

These qualities are of such a high order that it is no wonder most of us appear untrustworthy at one time or another. After all, trust involves interdependence and therefore vulnerability and risk. Where we are vulnerable, we are stressed, and under stress we regress to more primitive ways of behaving. So the act of trusting begets exactly the dynamics which work against it.

Nevertheless, trust in its broadest sense is fundamental to successful transactions of all kinds. Within its protection, we can learn, grow, co-operate and collaborate. Its absence constrains all these things, perhaps denying them altogether.

Assessing trustworthiness: some categories

When we are buying a newspaper, we don’t need to trust that the vendor would save our lives if we were attacked. We merely require that he proffer that day’s product and the correct change.

Conversely, if we are marrying someone or entering a business partnership with them, we want them to meet a rather broader set of trust expectations.

Ironically, the relationship in which trust is most fundamental to success – the parent/child relationship – is one in which we have no chance whatsoever to assess our partners before electing to be born to them. (Though some believe we do exactly that. However, as no-one actually remembers the selection process it might as well be universal ‘luck’ in action.)

So, before you commit yourself to your next significant relationship, take a look at some of the forms of trust you might be operating under depending on the circumstances. Then you’ll at least be partly safe from heading out into the world too bright-eyed, naive and a hostage to fortune.

Types of trust include:

    • Deterrence-based, which links the willingness to be trustworthy to a credible threat of punishment for failure to cooperate. In this type of relationship, involvement between parties is limited or superficial and usually compliant. A great many thefts by employees are probably prevented by this kind of trust.
    • Institutional, which is rooted in confidence in any system’s processes intended to deter opportunistic behavior and promote co-operation. This is the kind of trust that club members have in each other, though they may be totally different in their other roles. It also refers to legal mechanisms, licensing bodies, social networks, and societal norms. Some of these, it is clear, are more tightly defined – and thus more ‘trustworthy’ – than others.
    • Knowledge-based, which relies on the trusted person’s reputation and predictability as demonstrated by certification or references. This is the basis on which we often trust ‘professionals’. The basis for this trust is frequently a verification carried out by a third-party body, so we’re actually placing more trust in the validating body than in the person themselves. The extent of trust in this type of transaction is usually limited to very specific exchanges.
    • Conditional, which is a type of trust in which the parties have stable expectations of each other within easily identifiable parameters. Their interactions are thus routine, predictable, and reliable. In a tightly defined conditional trust relationship, the achievement of common goals and co-operation is planned so as to involve little personal cost or self-sacrifice. Such trust occurs when two people meet regularly to learn a language, go fishing, do each others’ nails, or something of that kind.
    • Relationally-based, which occurs when parties take on the needs and desires of each other as personal goals and act in ways that consider joint gains. This form of trust grows as the result of repeated interactions over time. A history of reliability and dependability gives rise to positive expectations about each of the parties’ future intentions. This trust, which is often expressed in a clear statement of mutual goals and roles, is seen in business partnerships and in strong workplace alliances. It is also reflected in strong coaching relationships.
    • Reciprocal, which is a much broader-based trust where the parties advance each other’s interests out of duty, love, or enlightened self-interest. In these relationships, advancement of individual interests is a by-product of devotion to the common good. I regard this as the healthy and productive core of marital trust.
    • Unconditional, which is characterized by a sense of mutual identification, a mutually high confidence level, and a mutual belief in shared values. Ideally, this is backed up by empirical evidence derived from relevant experience. Unconditional trust is the highly idealized state of the great partnerships and the stuff of empowering friendships.

However, it is when we trust unconditionally that we take the biggest risks. Here, our personal dynamics can obscure the truth of the nature of the person with whom we’re dealing. Denial can be a major feature of such relationships, with the need for the connection obscuring the realities of repeated minor betrayals. When a major betrayal occurs, and denial can no longer be sustained, the pain can be devastating.

No matter which type of trust is under examination, it implies:

  • an interaction of values, attitudes, moods and emotions;
  • expectations based on historical, empirical, or anecdotal experiences; and
  • the nature of the relationship.

With this number of variables, it’s no wonder that trust is such an elusive quality.

However, with the wonderful pragmatism of the human being on full display, we trust anyway. It is embedded in everything we do or try to do. It is explicit and implicit. It is found in every interpersonal, inter-organizational, and intra-organizational encounter, at every meeting. It even exists intrapersonally, within ourselves, as when we trust ourselves to meet our daily needs.

Given the extraordinary benefits which derive from high-trust relationships, it makes sense to see how trust can be built.

Building trust

The ideas that follow can once again be applied to all forms of human organization, from the single organism you call yourself through all the variants of multiple groupings. They begin with a crucial observation:

Healthy trust is rooted in action.

We can only assess others by what they do, not what they say. Whether a spouse has promised to be faithful or an organization has promised to deliver 5 widgets overnight, their trustworthiness can only be proven by the act (or lack of the act, in the case of the spouse!).

Employees and prospective employees are often misled by formal vision statements, mandates, and proud declarations of organizational objectives. Too often, these are empty symbols of the organizational culture, and are meaningless unless they are visibly put into action. The same goes for collegial protestations of all-for-one and one-for-all.

Trust building requires attention to at least five general principles, equally applicable to the corporation and the married couple. A reflective marriage might well include some discussion and ‘management’ agreements around them:

  • Equal participation in any decision-making process. Far too many marital decisions are made unilaterally. This erodes trust and denies the couple access to two-minds.
  • Maintenance of autonomy. We are individuals first, and any attempt to coerce, collude, or co-depend needs to be restrained if we are to be fully productive. Agreements around personal autonomy should include guarantees against abuse of power and may require reinforcement through agreed and even enforceable ‘constitutional’ protections. This is especially true where young children are involved.
  • Candid, respectful feedback. Handled tactfully and with non-judgmental compassion, feedback delivers enriching possibilities for critically self-reflective learning and individual self-development. (Please note: feedback statements such as: “Good grief! I never heard anything so stupid in my life!” do not qualify as respectful and do not build trust.)
  • Supportive behavior. This covers behaviors such as helping others to clarify their ideas and feelings. In some relationships, it may include a formal agreement that conflict will be ethically managed, perhaps by making use of a mediator.
  • Open communication. This is my own pet favorite, because I hold the sublime belief that if we all felt able to say anything and everything which occurred to us, only the most valuable expressions would surface above the general cacophony of nonsense which makes up most of our daily communications. Certainly, when I feel safe to express my own ‘nonsense’ without fear of condemnation, I trust my surroundings and don’t mind even if no-one agrees with me.

On this matter of uttering one’s convictions, it’s worth noting that while some national constitutions guarantee freedom of speech, and others imply it, there is one place where hardly anyone feels able to express themselves openly and directly: at home. Attitudes, opinions, and even scientific truths are often constrained by family mythologies. This is one reason why ‘home’ is such a hard place to develop trust.

Practically all children know that a closed and secretive parental decision-making process directly contributes to declining trust. Family dialogues that emphasize winning and losing, and a family ethos which activates negative traits such as lying, pandering, and competitive favoritism promote great mistrust and cynicism. The more gaps there are between expectations and the family’s perceived ability to deliver, the more trust erodes.

On the other hand, there is a strong relationship between levels of trust and openness. When people and organizations trust that they are free from reprisal, they reveal what they know and readily search for further information they need.

Openness produces trust and trust encourages people and organizations to use candor. When being open is not punished and/or confidences are not violated, we are motivated to sustain our openness or be even more frank. The cycle deepens and duplicates itself because positive trust relations are self-heightening. In this rich mulch, innovation and growth is inevitable.

Building trust must start with leadership

Those determined to create an environment of trust must realize that trust cannot be commanded or manipulated into existence. Trust is an attitude that is voluntarily granted to others only after assessing whether the recipients are worthy of such consideration. It is built or earned rather than dictated or orchestrated.

Leadership is a crucial factor in building conditions of faith and confidence in any couple, group or other organization. In a couple, leadership changes depending on the real or virtual situation. The ‘trust leader’ in any form of group must model the behavior they expect from others by keeping their word, sheltering the weaker, and speaking truth to power.

How values affect trust

Stated and lived values such as honesty and transparency are a great contributor to trust. They promote a high degree of mutual confidence and serve to create a tendency to trust that extends beyond the current situation.

When values are shared among people or organizations, the result is co-operation and even collaboration. Shared values help diminish judgments of inadequacy and provide assurances that knowledge and information will be used for the greater good. They also increase the likelihood that others will act in good faith and be guided by the shared standards.

Conversely, when shared values are absent or when trustee and trustor are unsure of each other’s values, free exchange of knowledge and information is unlikely. This is partly because there is an unacceptable risk in not knowing how such information might be used. We do not reveal our vulnerabilities to those we fear might exploit them.

This defensive rigidity softens and even disappears once an atmosphere of trust is established. Then, partners are likely to optimize their positions and move quickly to agreement. As a benefit of this, high levels of trust between individuals or organizations generally ensure fairer results, reduce the pain of resolving differences, and enhance the durability of any agreement.

Erosion of trust

A review of trust is not complete without an examination of how trust disappears. There are three contributory factors in this process:

  • When values, attitudes, moods, and emotions do not favor trust, trust will not develop;
  • When expectations are not reciprocated and emotional responses are negative, trust spirals downwards;
  • When trust is subject to any violations of mutually agreed upon expectations, trust is reduced and even lost forever.

There are also some paradoxical ways in which trust is lost, perhaps best summed up by Milton’s Eve responding to the Serpent’s gushing praise of the Apple in ‘Paradise Lost’. “Thy overweening praise”, she says, “leaves in some doubt the virtue of this fruit.”

So it is when presidents and prime ministers assure us that they are putting their integrity on the line. So it is when professional organizations tell us they are adding rules, regulations, and formal mechanisms of control over their membership. All these assertions are delivered with the goal of promoting trust.

Sadly, the more powerful the assertion, the stronger the implication is left that our leaders, or the institutions and their members, cannot be trusted. If we need to claim trustworthiness, we are not demonstrating it. After all, how does: “Trust me; I’m a serpent.” sound to you?

Characteristics of a low-trust relationship

When trust levels are low, or when trust is perceived to have been broken, interpersonal or inter-organizational transactions suffer and counter-productive results inevitably follow. When we perceive an environment as untrustworthy, we will act defensively to protect ourselves from harm.

Organizations – be they families or businesses – which are suffering under a low trust ethos are typically characterized by conditions of high stress. Most noticeably, all members spend a great deal of time and effort looking over their shoulders, justifying past decisions, and seeking out scapegoats when something goes wrong. Husbands install recording devices to check on wives; junior staff are encouraged to snoop on their immediate bosses.

Just like children in fear-driven families, individuals in low-trust organizations are pushed to operate with incomplete information. Their suggestions are often treated with suspicion. Fear of reprisal or ridicule inhibits them from contemplating new approaches to problem solving and of performing to their peak.

It is clear that the family of origin plays a crucial role in enabling us to trust. A successful growth environment for trust must be built on a foundation that includes not only the different types of trust but different levels of trust as well. Specifically:

  • Lateral trust must exist among peers such as ‘parents’ or ‘children’;
  • Vertical trust must exist between a supervisor and subordinates, or parent and child;
  • External trust must exist between the organization and the outside world. This trust in particular is often missing in the family situation, where ‘our’ family is held to be somehow different and superior to ‘the rest’. Separatist phrases such as ‘we don’t do that in our family’ echo down the generations. Family myths can be incredibly destructive in adult life.

The effects of an absence of trust within these vertical and horizontal connections can be devastating. It can result in false, adversarial, and even dysfunctional behavior as the various individuals seek to protect their particular roles and narrow self-interest.

On the other hand, strong trust relationships on all levels produce a more informal, collaborative and constructive approach to life. In tree terms, it’s the difference between a poisoned root system and a coherent, healthy one.

Repairing trust

Sooner or later, in any relationship, we find our expectations shattered, our trust threatened.

What do we do?

It’s not down to us alone. Injured or broken trust cannot be re-established between parties until each willingly renegotiates the relationship.

Repairing trust begins with a four-step process:

  • 1. The trust violation must be stated, recognized and acknowledged;
  • 2. The cause of the violation must be identified and explored. Issues raised here may be recorded for future examination;
  • 3. The violation must be acknowledged as having been destructive, even if this is only in the context of this relationship;
  • 4. Responsibility for the violation must be accepted by both parties. This is not always a popular idea, but it is a fact that when a violation of trust occurs it does so in the context of a relationship of at least two people. Any violation might be as much a matter of interpretation as of action. Or, where action has taken place, it might be in response to something originating in the other – now ‘violated’ – person. The only exception is where there is a true imbalance of power, such as where children are concerned.

To try to put this in perspective, a normally faithful and good husband might suddenly go adrift in some way. Ideally, (1) he will describe his actions and acknowledge their threat to trust in the relationship. However, he did not act in a vacuum. His ‘betrayal’ took place under certain circumstances (2) which both need to examine. He (3) has to accept that his actions were purposively destructive rather than creative. Finally, (4) both must accept the truth that the action arose from their joint process and set about repairing it together.

This process is harder to see taking place between corporations, yet as examples of corporate ‘betrayal’ are examined, the collusive element within their ‘cheated’ partners’ behaviors become evident. The phenomenon of Enron could not have occurred without the active cooperation of greedy or infatuated allies. More simply, small companies often overlook the most elementary caution when the opportunity of selling their products to a vast corporation arises.

For individuals or corporations, however, when all the admissions and confessions have taken place – thus creating a more open environment – the repair process may begin.

Even though in reality there is no perpetrator and no victim, each participant must go through with the role they have been cast in. The repair process is a ritual, requiring the ‘victim’ to request and for the ‘violator’ to offer some form of forgiveness or action designed to undo the violation and rebuild the trust.

By apologizing, the ‘violator’ offers to engage in actions that will do more than restore any previously held balance of rights and obligations. The ‘violator’ is volunteering to change themselves and thus the dynamics of the relationship so that trust can be rebuilt. This also gives the ‘victim’ the power to assert any new terms and conditions under which that will occur. Co-dependent collusion is thus brought to an end.

As this shows, it is very important to go beyond mere apology because that alone will change nothing.

Ultimately, if we feel we have been betrayed in the past, we have to be able to say to our partners, openly and without judgment: “I don’t feel easily able to trust you in this because you let me down before. Can you show me what you have done to bring about a different result this time?”

We must then assess whether any action has been taken to bring about change, and whether it seems enough to make a preferred result more likely.


We have to trust, but not blindly. Even our first encounters with individuals and organizations can be less risky if we allow ourselves to be healthily wary.

Trust is essential as a foundation for co-operation and as the basis for stability in social institutions of all kinds. It is also the one ingredient that can inject your relationships with liveliness, dynamism and growth.

I hope the trust in your lives helps them be more fruitful.

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