Can Trust Be Taught?

Let’s not mince words. The answer, pretty much, is yes.

The exception is what the academics call social trust—a generalized inclination to think well or ill of the intentions of strangers in the aggregate. That kind of trust ends up being inherited from your Scandinavian grandparents (or not, from your Italian grandparents).

The rest, let’s break it down. First, enough talk about “trust.” Trust takes two to tango. One to trust, another to be trusted. They are not the same thing.

So let’s start by asking which we want to teach: to trust, or to be trustworthy?

Trusting someone is, paradoxically, often the fastest way to make that other person trustworthy—thereby creating a relationship of trust.  People tend to live up, or down, to others’ expectations. So if you can muster the ability to trust another, you’re both likely to reap big returns quickly from the resultant trust.

However: trusting can also be a high risk proposition. The vast majority of business people, on hearing “trust,” will say “that’s too risky.” In other words, they hear “trust” as meaning “trusting,” and they turn off.

On the other hand, there is being trustworthy. If you consistently behave in a trustworthy manner, others will come to trust you, and voila, you have that trusting relationship. Being trustworthy tends to take longer than trusting, but the results are just as good. And, it’s very low risk.

Let me say that again: becoming trustworthy is a low risk, high payoff proposition. This is not a hard concept for people to get, if explained right.

What does it mean to be trustworthy? The trust equation explains it: it’s a combination of credibility, reliability, intimacy, and a low level of self-orientation. You can take a self-assessment test of your own TQ, or Trust Quotient, based on the trust equation.

So the question is: can people be taught to become more credible? More reliable? More capable of emotional connectedness? More other-oriented and less self-oriented?

The answer is yes. Big picture, there are two ways to teach these things. One is to recall Aristotle’s maxim: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

People can be taught truth-telling, reliability, even other-orientation to some extent by showing them the behaviors—particularly the language–of trustworthy people.

But the deeper, more powerful approach to building trustworthy people starts the other way around: by working on thoughts to drive action. As the Burnham Rosen group articulates this point  “thought drives actions which result in outcomes.”

Many disciplines outside of business know the truth and power of this approach: psychology, acting, public speaking, to name a few. Business doesn’t appreciate it enough. But commonsense does.

Trust can be taught: either by teaching trusting, or trustworthiness. The latter is lower risk, hence the most attractive approach for many in business.  And trustworthiness can be taught via a mix of skillsets and mindsets

It makes sense.

4 replies
  1. Barbara Brooks Kimmel
    Barbara Brooks Kimmel says:

    Hi Charlie- while I agree that trust can be taught, some people are faster learners than others. In my experience, much depends on nature and nurture. In other words, trustworthy people are often the product of trustworthy families. Trustworthy business leaders may have similar profiles. When trustworthiness is part of the DNA, the learning curve is much faster, and sometimes simply not necessary at all!

  2. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Charlie, I agree with both you and Barbara on this. Importantly, trust can be un-taught as well. The culture of an organization will have a strong impact on where an individual within the organization will fall on the trust scale. Thus it would be very hard for a trusting/trustworthy employee to maintain his/her trusting perspective within say the VW culture. On the other hand, an employee who might be inclined to cut some corners will be less likely to in an organization that places a high value on integrity. Employees tend to take their cue from how their employer represents products and services to their customers. Thus an organization that misrepresents its offerings shouldn’t be surprised by a need to carefully scrutinize expense accounts.

  3. Anon
    Anon says:

    “That kind of trust ends up being inherited from your Scandinavian grandparents (or not, from your Italian grandparents).”
    What does this mean with reference to Italians? Are you saying that Italians are less likely to trust people? Please explain, thanks.

    • Charlie
      Charlie says:

      Hi Anon,

      Yes, that’s what it means. The best explanation of it can be found in Francis Fukuyama’s seminal work on trust called Trust. It is an exploration of trust at a social and cultural level, and he explains how trust takes different forms due to different cultural histories.

      Trust looks different in China (very heavily family- and clan-based), France (centralized), Japan, and others. It is well established in studies like the General Social Survey, over the last 50 years, that shows the highest trust societies today are the Scandinavians, and the lower trust cultures are Italy (especially southern Italy, including Sicily), Russia and Eastern Europe

      The grandparents reference comes from the work of Eric Uslaner, who uses the GSS data to show how slowlly that kind of trust changes, and how it’s deeply cultural, not event-based.


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