Trusting and Trustworthiness: The Chicken or the Egg?

Most talk you hear about trust uses that one word—“trust.”  But on closer reading, the talk turns out to be about one of two very different things: either about trusting, or about trustworthiness.

They are not the same.

Trusting is about the one doing the trusting.  Being trusted is about the one who would be trusted, or trustworthiness.

•    When you read about the poor charities who got ripped off by Bernie Madoff, that’s about trust-as-trusting.
•    When you read about how Bernie Madoff pulled off the con, that’s about trust-as-trustworthiness.
•    Surveys that talk about declining trust are usually about a decline in trust-as-trusting.
•    When we read stories about how there are more securities violations, we’re reading about a decline in trustworthiness.

Which is the chicken, and which is the egg—trusting, or trustworthiness? Which causes the other?  Which should drive policy?

Years ago I consulted to a convenience store chain with a serious store manager turnover problem (150% per year).  They wanted us to profile a successful store manager so they could hire to that spec. 

Sounded like a good plan.

Until we found out that each store manager was routinely given a lie detector test every month to see if they were stealing. 

Let’s say you’re a store manager.   After 6 months of being hooked up to a polygraph and asked if you were a thief, you might figure “hmm, someone must be getting away with something—I wonder how he’s doing it?”  So you start experimenting.

And in a few months, you’ve a turnover statistic.

So which was the chicken, and which the egg?  Trusting, or trustworthiness?

The company management thought the trustworthiness came first, that they were being victimized by untrustworthy employees.  They wanted to find trustworthy people, so they could trust.

In this case, it turned out to be the opposite problem.  Management’s mistrust lowered the trustworthiness of the store manager.  People live up (or down) to our expectations of them.

Sometimes it’s the other way. There are real Madoffs out there, and you’d be a chump not too protect yourself against them.

But here’s the thing.  Think of trust as a risk mitigation strategy. Unlike fight or flight—the usual risk mitigation strategies—trust actually alters the risk in question.

If you take a risk and trust someone—or take a risk to show that you are trustworthy—you can influence the other’s behavior.  People tend to respond in like manner to well intended gestures. 

Madoff is not the norm.  To subject every store manager (or any other job) to the kind of scrutiny that would prevent a Madoff can be a very expensive proposition.  (See Sarbanes-Oxley; airport security).  We need to think very carefully about the right responses to unusual events.