Trusting: the Other Side of Trust

A lot has been written about trust.  It’s often not clear, however, whether the subject is trustworthiness, or trusting.  If trust in banking is down, does that mean that banks are less trustworthy? Or that people are less inclined to trust?

Most of my work has been about trustworthiness (e.g. The Trusted Advisor). Other people write more overtly about trusting – a good example is the HBR article ReThinking Trust,  by Stanford Professor Rod Kramer, which focuses on the danger of trusting.

Some people write about the big subject of trust itself – the end result of the interaction between trustor and trustee.  A fine example is Francis Fukuyama’s classic Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.

Finally, many other sources end up talking about all three; think Covey’s Speed of Trust, or Bob Hurley’s The Decision to Trust.

The Power of Trusting

The sources above are largely academic. In the popular press, by far the most common topics are trustworthiness and the state of trust itself (trust as the result of an interaction between trustor and trustee). Throw a dart into a pile of 100 popular press articles on trust, and you’re likely to find Congress, investment bankers, and the Madoff-du-jour scandal as the subject.

This means most public policy debates focus on trustworthiness.  Most examples are negative; hence trusting is positioned as cautionary, i.e. watch out for car salesmen, lawyers, etc. The moral of the story is tut tut, another untrustworthy group, watch out.

And all this focus on negative examples of trustworthiness is having an effect on people’s inclination to trust. How could it not! And that is a terribly unfortunate thing. Because the scarce trust resource increasingly is not trustworthiness, but the willingness to trust.  We need to start focusing on the trustor, not just on the trustee.

The power of trusting is enormous. When it comes to trust, there is an answer to the chicken and egg dilemma of which comes first, the trustor or the trustee?  The answer is trustor.  Consider:

  • Until one party decides to take a risk and trust another, trust does not come into existence
  • Trusting has a profound impact on trustworthiness – think “the fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him,” or “people live up or down to the expectations of them”
  • Trusting is inherently an act of optimism; a decline in trusting in the business world drives down innovation, and prevents collaboration and alliances

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks. There is interesting material out there on the lessons from Prisoner’s dilemma, game theory, sociobiology, and the global decline in violence over the centuries – not to mention the backlash against competitive strategy going on in business schools.

I welcome any comments on the subject; I’m trying to do some thinking out loud here.  And I trust the readers of this blog to come up with great contributions.