Books We Trust: The Decision to Trust by Bob Hurley

This is the eighth in a series called Books We Trust.

The Decision to Trust is one of the best books written in recent years on trust; it is a major contribution to the subject.

Author Bob Hurley teaches at Fordham and Columbia, so it’s no surprise that the book is solidly rooted in the extensive academic work on trust. Perhaps more surprising is that the book is also intensely practical, based on his years of consulting and research work with significant companies.

I sat down recently with Bob at his decidedly un-Lincoln Center-ish Fordham offices near Lincoln Center.

Capitalism: Back to the Future

Charlie Green: Let’s get one thing clear: you’re not doing double-duty as Basketball Hall of Fame high school coach Bob Hurley over in Jersey City – are you?

Bob Hurley: No, but I’m a fan, so I’m flattered by the confusion.

Charlie: OK, that’s out of the way. This is a wonderful book, Bob, clearly the result of years of research.

Bob: Decades, actually. I started as an accountant, then got an MBA and did consumer marketing. Eventually I realized I really wanted to be a teacher. I ended up at Columbia, where I studied under Morton Deutsch, the founder of the field of conflict resolution and a brilliant psychologist.

Today, I teach various courses in leadership and management at Fordham, and I teach executive education at Columbia

Charlie: Let’s jump right to the book. The heart of it, and I think the genius of it, is your idea of approaching trust from the point of view of a decision. A decision to trust is a largely psychological decision by the trustor, which is affected by the trustor’s own propensity to trust, and by the trustor’s view of the trustworthiness of the trustee in the particular situation.

Tell us the power of approaching things that way?

Bob: Well most people especially business people understand decision-making. When we frame the issue of trust as a decision we can help people not only understand about trust but also understand how to help others make a choice to trust vs. be suspicious. We do this by helping trustees understand how to be trustworthy in the eyes of others. This not only makes the model grounded in research in psychology, but also very practical.

It turns out that this approach also it allows you to make sense of trust from an interpersonal, group and organizational perspective. It may have a psychological locus at the heart of it, but it also allows for intelligent discussion about social environments and institutional behaviors.

Charlie: Would you list the ten factors please, as a teaser to get readers to click through and buy your book?

Bob: Sure. The first three factors are trustor-related: the level of risk tolerance, the trustor’s level of psychological adjustment, and the power position of the trustor all affect their likelihood to put themselves at knowing risk of another, which is how I think of the decision to trust.

The other seven factors are situational: They are security, similarity, alignment of interests, the level of perceived benevolent concern, capability, predictability and integrity, and communication. Some of those are about the trustee’s character as perceived by the trustor – some are about the trustor’s perception of the situation.

Charlie: You can then use this model to test, rate, rank, diagnose, consult and so forth, right? It’s a powerful tool for consultation and management.

Bob: Exactly, and it’s been widely tested over the years in thousands of situations. I started out testing it in exec ed programs; I wrote up a version of it in an HBR article, which led to more consulting and more testing.  It’s extremely workable, in addition to being well-grounded in the trust research literature.

Charlie: What are some of the problems to which you’ve applied the model?

Bob: There’s quite a range, from making better individual decisions, to leadership, to more effective team organization, even to culture change and trust repair. The model describes the failures of organizations like the Catholic Church’s problems with priestly sexual abuse, and the DaimlerChrysler debacle.

Charlie: You’re quite clear about the need to address trust issues systemically, aren’t you?

Bob: I think so. Personal trust is critical, but culture trumps personality. If we don’t get leaders to start to high trust create cultures and systems, we won’t get there. You can’t just change individuals and stop there.

For trust to get better in the trust-challenged world we live in, we have to get better at all three dimensions; trustors have to get better at making better trust decisions, trustees have to become more trustworthy, and we have to make our organizational cultures, systems and processes more trustworthy .

Charlie: David Gebler, in the field of ethics, makes much the same point: most ethical lapses are not due to moral failure on the part of individuals, but to an environment that is insufficiently supportive of ethical behavior.

Bob: Makes sense to me, and I would add that we need to go well beyond ethics to understand what makes people and companies trustworthy. Just because a person is ethical does not mean people will or should trust them!

Charlie: Let’s talk about one particular application of the Decision to Trust Model (DTM), that of leadership and management. First of all, what’s your take on how our ideas of “leadership” have evolved over the years?

Bob: I would say that the science behind leadership has evolved from trait theory to focus more on relationship, the need for flexibility and agility, EQ and the importance of self awareness and authenticity. When I teach leadership I tell people that the generic version of leadership is not terribly helpful to you.

The real challenge is finding out given who you are, what form of leadership can you manifest. We do not need to all become Winston Churchill! Trust fits into this notion of leader-follower relationship and authenticity. Bill George at Harvard has done a great job adding to this notion.

Charlie: Interesting.  And how does the DTM play out here? How can a leader use it practically?

Bob: Given that we know what makes people decide to trust, we can start by manifesting these “signals” of trustworthiness. Behaviors like aligning stakeholders interests, demonstrating benevolence and not opportunism, articulating values and ensuring value congruence and perhaps most importantly communicating with openness, transparency; and don’t forget listening with empathy and being approachable. These things can be taught but we have not focused on them enough!

Charlie: What’s your take on how our capitalist system has turned into such a low-trust system. It clearly wasn’t always this way; what has happened?

Bob: We need to re-define capitalism. It has been a great creator of wealth but it needs to evolve. As the global financial crisis showed us in spades, many business leaders have become opportunists focused on short-term greed. We need to grow a generation of integrative stewards who bring stakeholders together in moving the enterprise forward and focus on the long term. We need more incentive for capital to take a long-term view. Managing our businesses for the next quarter and our country for the next election is a prescription for disaster when we are competing with companies and nations that have 10, 20 and100 year plans!

Charlie: I think your model has another virtue, which is it’s useful even in application to our political system – no small feat in a polarized world. Is that right?

Bob: Political marketing is essential about getting people to doubt your opponent and trust you. Since Bush Senior’s win against Dukakis, this has been done using the same tricks used in marketing soda or soap. There is an emphasis on appearing trustworthy, while not actually being trustworthy.

We are mostly to blame because we take short cuts in assessing trustworthiness and at some level we do not want to hear the truth. We need systemic reform in politics; we need to “get the money out” as a first step (create alignment of interests). After that, term limits, and strict rules limiting lobbying.

We need to stop talking about big or small government, and starting talking about effective or ineffective government. I talk about this in the book. The major reason people do not trust government in the US is that they see the system as incompetent and wasteful. 

Charlie: Bob, thanks so much for spending time with me, and congratulations again on the book. It truly is a milestone in the literature on trust, in my humble opinion, and I hope it gets all the attention it deserves, which is a ton.

Bob: You’re welcome, it’s been a pleasure.



10 replies
  1. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:

    Thank you Charlie – for featuring this work – and Bob for writing it:  I am definitely buying this book today!  I’m intrigued by the view of trust from the trustor’s side and the look at trust through the lens of decision-making.

  2. michael_webster
    michael_webster says:

    I read the HBR article and have Robert’s book on order.  One thing stands out, for me.

    Traditionally, strategic analysis will isolate those type of decisions in which trust is neither required nor helpful from those in which trust is necessary.  Roughly, this is the demarcation between zero sum and non zero sum attitudes.  Some believe that few interesting decisions are zero sum, while others -myself included- see many important strategic encounters as zero sum.

    Many social dilemmas are the result of the zero sum attitude being taken up by some, not many, which makes the appeal to trust both ineffective and suspicious.

    How does Robert deal with this strategic problem?

    • Bob Hurley
      Bob Hurley says:

      Michael – An interesting question, I’m not sure if your interested in individual or organizational level so I’ll answer more generally. While trust is morally preferred in all situations, it is especially valuable where collaboration and cooperation can enlarge the pie for both parties – where their openness and goodwill create opportunities. I would argue that their are few strategic decisions (org level) that are zero sum. Nearly all of them  have social and relationship affects not just economic. Netflix forgot this when they raised prices 60% in a move that was quite justified from an economic business model perspective -they damaged relations with customer and investors. Freeman calls this the separatist mentality where split human and economic considerations. From a trust building perspective you are correct that as Deutsch would say when one party has a zero sum, competitive perspective it is much harder to create trust. This is why the first step with such a person is communication and an attempt to help them see that trust and cooperation is not only possible but often advantageous. This is often, but not always possible. Your question underscores a key point, we must be clear about in which relationships trust is most valuable and start building it there. In a world where people are so busy trust will get more traction where it is most essential.


      • michael_webster
        michael_webster says:


        I am interested in large group coalitions, and how they avoid various of known social dilemmas.

        My interest is to identify those signals of trust used between two parties to see if they survive being made into explicit signpost or conventions that many but not all need to follow to form a group.

        The use of “trust” I focus on would be between two parties, irrespective of scale.  I try to break out those situations in which the appearance of trust can be had by following a convention, coordination problems, and those which require some interpersonal comparisons of utility – cooperation problems. 

    • Charlie Green
      Charlie Green says:


      Now that we’ve got Bob’s thoughtful reply, I wanted to add my own $.02 to the discussion.

      You are correct, Mike, in saying that “many social dilemmas are the result of the zero sum attitude…”  And speaking for yourself, you suggest that you “see many important strategic encounters as zero sum.”

      Bob’s polite response is that “there are very few strategic decisions (org level) that are zero sum,” and he agrees with you that “trust will get more traction where it is more essential.”

      All right, I’m going to push in Bob’s direction much harder. I’d say first of all that nearly all strategic decisions that are phrased in zero sum terms are flawed decisions. I don’t disagree with you that many decisions are framed that way–I’m just saying they’re almost always wrongly framed that way. 

      There are very very few issues or decisions that could be called “strategic” that meet true zero-sum criteria, which I’d suggest include:

       -the parties will either never meet again on any issue, or
       -the parties, if they meet again, will be complete amnesiacs with respect to the zero sum treatment of each other in this issue 
       -the issue will be completely secret from all other parties, so that no one will know the two parties approached this issue as zero-sum.

      Those are pretty stringent criteria.  But if they’re not met–if the two parties do meet again, if they actually remember how the other party acted the last time, if they actually talk to others–then the actions have consequences. They lead other parties to treat them as zero-sum players in the future. They create reputations, which in the real world become beliefs and assumptions that color and prejudice future actions. 

      That means both players will not be looked on by new parties as collaborative, but rather as competitive. Small secrets will be guarded from them, not shared with them. Partnerships will not be sought out, defensive contracts will. Parties will lead with lawyers, not handshakes. Introductions will not be made; referrals will not happen. And so on.

      This is just what happens, and it happens on both the personal and the organizational level.  Act like a zero-sum player, and you will be treated as a zero-sum player. Your actions define your future reputation. 

      I don’t honestly view this as a strategic issue in the sense that I think you meant it, Michael. It’s not an issue of structural economics, or barriers to entry, or market share dynamics or growth rates.  Instead, it is largely a matter of attitude and choice. 

      Companies, and people, have enormous latitude to see things as zero sum, or not.  The dichotomy is not an ontological feature of the world, it is a feature of our attitudes–which are voluntary and self-created. Which means, in another sense of the word ‘strategy,’ the choice to view an issue or a decision as zero sum or not is about as strategically important a choice as any you can make. 

      I agree with both of you that, in Bob’s terms, “trust will get more traction where it is more essential.”  That’s very true, but also largely trivial. The bigger point is that we vastly underestimate the frequency of instances where the non-zero-sum view is viable. And that failure, rather than the failure to spot a very few truly zero-sum instances, has far greater consequences.

      My $0.02.

      • michael_webster
        michael_webster says:

        Gee, if that is the 2 cents reply, sign me up for the $1 reply!

        Let me address several points.  Yes, by way of background, I have in mind the Schelling/Goffman use of the term “strategic”.

        First, and I don’t we if are in disagreement on this, every significant strategic interaction which you identify will have an important zero sum component.  How we avoid bad compromises -picking the worst compromise available – requires us to explicitly acknowledge that we have to manage the zero and non zero sum elements.  (I have an exercise from the Manager as Negotiator which is a demonstration of this as an “aha” moment.)

        Second,  I think there are many pure conflict situations which are not zero sum.   It is simple to set up a game in which there are only winners and losers, but my preference orderings are not the reverse of yours.  (This is a point not sufficiently made in the strategic literature, and I may be proven wrong on it.)  So, even if you think that there are only winners and losers, it doesn’t mean you should adopt a zero sum mentality with respect to figuring out the other party’s preferences.  

        Third, even in those areas in which I would agree that either the pure conflict or zero sum strategic choice is flawed, 50 years of teaching integrative bargaining strategies appears only to have enriched the teachers of these strategies and not their pupils.  So, these flaws are not being corrected.  

        Why does distribution bargaining  remain so stubbornly entrenched – in the very areas we think it should have been improved upon?  (I rely upon the empirical findings in paper by Max Bazerman, et al. for the claim about the ineffectiveness of teaching integrative bargaining techniques.  If you don’t have it, I can send it to you.)

        Fourth, we could have probably avoided this latest financial mania had enough people, some of the time reflected that the price auction market for securities is a zero sum between buyer and seller.  Markets have a habit of offering the appearance of great returns, which simply acquired knowledge of zero sum game theory would show as illusory for the price.  (I can you a toy example on this point.)

        Hopefully, each point was worth at least 1/2 cent.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] 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. […]

  2. […] Green,, who interviewed Robert Hurley, called it “one of the best books written in recent years on […]

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