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.




6 replies
  1. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Charlie, while reading the blog,I was reminded of Barbara Minto, author of the The Pyramid Principle. She explained her approach this way, …Flawed, cloudy writing is the direct result of flawed, cloudy thinking. I don’t teach writing, I teach thinking. I paraphrased but you get the  point.

    I get nervous when I read that trust can be taught. Its not that I disagree w/ you, however some myopic manager will read that and think, EUREKA, there’s a shortcut!! Let’s have a training class & that will solve our problems re: trust.

    I applaude the Burnham Rosen group, they appear to focus on the thinking behind actions. Isn’t that what learning is suppose to be about? I think a certain way, therefore I act a certain way, therfore I get a certain result. Many business mgr believe a fast, short training class is the panacea to everything (especially mgmt/leadership issues). If I wanted to see a change in a manual task, that could be reasonable. Once one gets into the soft, messy stuff of leadership behavior and its impact, it’s no longer as simple as training one to use a new machine.  The awareness of the thinking that initiates the behavior and it’s impact should be the ultimate goal in any learning activity. Only then can one be shown some appropriate approaches and techniques otherwise its like spitting into the wind. Training and Learning are connected but are not the same and unfortunately, in business (and interestingly in L&D, as well), the two are used interchangably. Sorry to go so far afield from your original thoughts but I don’t want some manager walking away thinking establishing trust and becoming trustworthy, can be learned from just a short training class.



  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    I couldn’t agree more, and probably couldn’t have said it better.  It is teachable, but that means learning, not training, as you point out.  And it sure as heck means the thinking behind the behavior too.

    Being doable doesn’t mean it’s a snap, else we’d all be doing it.

    That said, I do stand behind the intent behind the claim: we do not have to be prisoners of our genetic inheritance.  Picking your parents correctly doesn’t have to be the only trust strategy.  Conversion is possible. 

    Proof of that is that in the TQ data I’ve been collecting, the clearest statistic of all is that trustworthiness appears to increase with age.  That could mean a lot of things, but one is that we actually do learn from experience.  I think that’s hopeful.

  3. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Charlie: I agree wholeheartedly.

    If the leaders/managers that ‘set the pace" in organizations categorize "Trust" as one of those "intangible, abstract notions (along w/Ethics) that can be obtained thru a one-time class, the recovery is a long way off !!! Based upon that lack of comprehension on the difference between training & learning, we can’t expect Trust to be established, re-established and/or nurtured overnite. It takes time to "learn" and then more time to reinforce that "learning". 


  4. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

     Hi Charlie,

    Theortically, I would agree. However…some additional thoughts.


    There are those who, on the superficial or practical level, might say that trusting is a matter of willpower – "just do it (enough)" type of thinking and you’ll become a trusting person. The deal with willpower is that it has less to do with will/mind as it does with body and physiology. Most folks today don’t get enough sleep. Due to poor dietary habits, many folks operate regularly with low blood sugar. Most folks today are affected by some deep level of stress and overwhelm. These three elements alone augur 100% against will power and so it’s no wonder folks in this category hardly ever change their thinking or their life in any way through "willpower."


    As Barbara points out, there is a huge difference between teaching and learning. Effective teachers understand learning theory; ineffective teachers don’t. And one indication of this understanding is that effective learning is a process, not a "one-off" event i.e., workshop, seminar, or sit-down at a computer-assisted instructional experience.


    The type of content that needs to be included if trust is to be approached honestly and responsibly, IMHO, and stick, has as much to do with psychological principles, "soft stuff" as it does with a superficial "technology" approach to how to trust and be trusting. Many refuse to go there…on either side of the teaching/learning desk. Effective teachers start where the student is and if the student is dealing with (normal) emotional issues that affect trust, that’s where one has to begin and few ever begin there. Too risky and too scary.


    Just about every adult has been betrayed in some way, shape or form as a child. Whether it was a child who was wet and cried and whose caregiver misunderstood and fed him/her, a child who was crying because s/hew was hungry and their caregiver changed their diaper, a child who wanted and needed to be held and was put in a crib instead, a child who wanted mommy or daddy’s attention and was physically or sexually or verbally abused or wounded in some way, shape or form – and so as a result the child internalized the experience of: "I can’t trust you."  The emotions and energy of this wounding or trauma are in the child’s body as well as the neuronal pathways in the brain. Until or unless one work with the emotions, the "thought" of trust won’t stick, especially when there’s an underlying emotion of fear, anxiety, trepidation that "you will betray me." The fact is that when there’s a conflict between a thought (e.g., "I trust you") and an emotion "(I’m afraid of trusting you) the emotion will always (read: always) win out. This is another reason willpower alone, and "thinking" alone, most often cannot change one’s way of being (all the support for cognitive therapy, etc. notwithstanding, IMHO).  


    As for the The Burnham Rosen Group, two things of note: (1) Follow-up InterActive Coaching is part of the process; so it’s not a "one-off" deal. (2) their use of the "thought-action-outcome" model says, "Motives are only thoughts. And while they are largely unconscious, once an individual is aware of his/her thought patterns (motives) and how they impact behavior, new thoughts can be produced to change that behavior."


    I might disagree. There’s a difference between knowing and awareness. Having no idea how they process this work, I would be curious how inculcating new thoughts and "knowing" would deal with the (childhood) fear, and other negative emotions that are contained in the body. Candace Pert’s seminal work "Molecules of Emotion" and related research points to the need to work with the "emotional body" as well as the "mind" to effect true and lasting change which leaves one feeling truly authentic and real…not just a as a "new thinker" who still feels fear and suppresses emotions. (I wonder if they do this)


    I would be curious if this "new thinker" also experienced the deeper emotions that accompany empathy, and compassion, for example, or is s/he just a "mentally" changed person that "gets the job done by the end of the day." I’m curious.


    When we become aware of our unconscious, which we have to do in order to see our relationship to trust, it’s not often a pleasant experience.  Moving through the fear to love and wisdom is not a "thinking" process alone. It takes time and "work." The work involves becoming conscious of our reactivity, defenses, feelings, beliefs and judgments, motives and values and this is not solely a "Oh, just change your thinking" process.


    We also have to find our authenticity – also a challenging process. This is a tough and rough undertaking if it is to work. "Know thyself" is the first step and how many folks do you know who are ready, willing or able to do that (rhetorical)?


    Truth creates trust. No truth, no trust. How many are willing to look at themselves to know their "truth" – warts and all. Perhaps our greatest challenge lies in getting to know our own truth, so we can fully own it, and speak it…which leads to trust and trustworthiness. Too often, our egos feel too vulnerable and insecure to take this exploration (so we’ll do a "ropes" course instead!).


     Trust is a quality of the soul, of the heart, not just the "thinking" mind. That’s where it is, that’s where we find it and that’s where we work with it. Not the ego mind alone.


    We learn very young not to trust. We become conditioned very early on not to trust. And we bring these notions into adulthood. While we might "want" to trust others (with our rational/cortex brain) our limbic brain (fear/fight/flight emotional brain) usually takes oven when we are dealing with others with whom we have no deep or intimate relationship or contact, even spouses or partners. Unless we have done the "work," deliberately,  we will find it hard to trust. The psychic tension is just to commanding. Combined with the urge to not trust is the lack of an urge to love, because we don’t trust ourselves. And when we don’t trust ourselves it’s impossible to trust others.

    Trust is about expanding consciousness and this again is a (longish) process, not an event. The movement from lack of trust to a trusting attitude requires shifting perspective from personality to soul, to heart. A soul perspective enables us to grasp the essence, see the meaning and sense of what we are about to experience, that it is right, meaningful and purposeful. How many go into an interaction with that perspective these days?


    Trust can only exist, though, to the extent that fear is absent. Either you have to deal with the issue of your fear to enable trust to be present, or you can focus on the relevant soul perspective in order to diminish the fear. Working on both levels would, of course, be the most effective. A one-stop workshop, or a "well, just change your thinking", probably not so much.


    Sorry to ramble, Charlie, but you really tugged on my sleeve. I do trust it’s OK with you.


    "Ultimately, we must learn to trust ourselves. When we do this intimately and intelligently, the world opens full of meaning before us. We find that we ourselves are the doorway to a fathomless understanding of the source of life itself. We need only to learn to walk through it." — James Thornton












  5. Nancy G.
    Nancy G. says:

    Very interesting post. I believe trust can be taught in most situations; however, many people must learn the traits of trustworthyness. If one examines the 12-Step model, one works with a "sponsor" who helps to teach the very traits that one may have missed either in childhood or lost to his or her lifestyle.

    Absence of fear is a factor; I agree with Mr. Thornton. We must frequently "step out in faith" to overcome fear by asking ourselves a few questions, like "What is the worst that will happen if I follow this path e.g, to trust?"


  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Yes, it’s all very rich stuff.  I agree w. Peter and Nancy, and I think what they’ve said also speaks to Barbara’s concern.

    Trust work is indeed soul work.  I find teaching it in the western corporate world a challenge in getting the world sold, designed, set up, etc.  However: once in a room, I find the most remarkable conversations often open up.  And they often have to do with fear, risk, truthfulness: exactly the things Peter and Nancy point out. 

    The sponsor role in 12-step programs is a powerful one.  It dramatically shows the sponsee just how to translate the principles and apply them to real life.  It helps them see there is indeed more than one way to handle things, generally involving one way that’s sucks and another that’s better.  It demonstrates that by being honest with oneself and another, those deep-imprinted fears Peter talks about can be overcome.

    But the biggest sponsor lesson of all, I think, is the lesson to the sponsor: you can do everything within your power to help and influence that other person, but at the end of the day, you cannot control them.  There is risk in trust, as there is in life.  There are no guarantees.  To resist trusting because of risk is to resist living because you might die.  True dat.

    I think what we’re all saying is that both trusting, and being trustworthy, can be taught (it’s a bit easier to teach the latter, I would say).  But the teaching must be of the sort that grabs people in an emotional way, rather than the largely process-driven and behaviorally-focused models that dominate corporate training.

    Still: I prefer to be optimistic.  What I’ve seen in terms of emotional ability and desire among the vast reaches of the corporate world suggests you can’t stomp down the human soul.  That’s cool.


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