Dr. Eric Uslaner on the Nature of Trust (Trust Quotes #3)

My guess is not many TrustMatters blog readers recognize the name Eric Uslaner. Nevertheless, it would be hard to overstate his importance in the field of trust. Dr. Deborah Nixon, a trust academic herself, says, “Uslaner is arguably the leading academic in the field.”

A professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, Eric is the author of The Moral Foundations of Trust: in my opinion, a superb work. There’s more, much more, but you can get it at his website.

Now, let’s talk trust.

CHG: Dr. Uslaner, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us. I’m delighted to be able to share a taste of your work with TrustMatters readers.

Let’s start with something deceptively simple: what is trust?

EMU: There isn’t one concept of trust. Most of the time we talk about trusting someone to do something specific—do I trust my doctor to take care of my health? I don’t ask if he can be trusted to paint my house.

But there is also a form of trust that doesn’t depend upon evidence or experience—what I call “moralistic trust.” This is the belief that we can trust people whom we don’t know and who may be different from ourselves. This is the sort of trust that helps societies solve key problems. It is more based upon our belief that we ought to trust people—the Golden Rule—than our experiences with people we know well and who may look and think like ourselves.

CHG: Why does trust matter and why should we trust people we don’t know?

EMU: Trust leads to many positive outcomes. Trusting people are more tolerant of people unlike themselves. They are not more likely to have friends or to join groups—misanthropes have friends too and we all tend to join groups of people just like ourselves. But trusting people are more likely to give to charity and to volunteer for causes that help people who are different from themselves.

And trusting societies are less corrupt, have lower crime rates, are more open to trade, and have higher levels of economic growth. They are more open to globalization and new technologies. Such societies also have higher levels of internet usage and scientific innovation. Trusting people are more accepting of risk. They may be more vulnerable to risky situations, but they are also in the best position to profit from taking greater risks. Mistrusting people may protect themselves by avoiding risk, but trusting people are the ones who will reap the biggest profits.

CHG: Aren’t we safer trusting people like ourselves?

EMU: If we only trust people like ourselves, we miss out on the best opportunities. Many years ago Mark Granovetter wrote about “the strength of weak ties,” where we are more likely to prosper by dealing with people we may not know well. Ronald Burt has written about “structural holes,” where open networks lead to far better outcomes than closed networks.

The companies that perform the best generally bring together people of different backgrounds so that each can learn from each other. If we only trust people we know—or people like ourselves—we risk the problem of “groupthink,” where we become convinced that our positions are correct because our friends and colleagues agree with us. There is no corrective for bad advice. Putting trust in people who are different from us is a stronger path to innovation and prosperity.

CHG: Are all types of trust equally good?

EMU: Aside from “strategic trust” (or trust based upon evidence to do specific things), we also have generalized trust—trust in strangers who may be different from ourselves—and “particularized trust,” when we only trust people like ourselves. This in-group trust is far more common in the world—and it has negative consequences.

CHG: Negative consequences–interesting.  So not all trust is positive?

EMU: That’s right–particularized trust as a substitute for generalized trust is a negative for a group.  If a group limits its trust, it results in closed minds, cultures, and economies.

CHG: What first drew you to the topic of trust?

EMU: I first got interested in trust when I was looking for an explanation as to why there is so much incivility in Congress. Congress, I argued, is much like the rest of us—the incivility in Congress reflects the declining trust among the public.

CHG: Are some groups of people more trusting than others?

EMU: The most trusting people are the Nordics—both in the Nordic countries and here (in Minnesota and the Dakotas). The Nordic countries have a long history of greater equality and that is why they are the most trusting.

CHG: What does the Bernie Madoff saga tell us about trust?

EMU: Not that much about trust in people, but more about trust in institutions—especially trust in financial institutions (banks, brokerage firms) and to some extent trust in government (for not being on top of the case).

CHG: Is it true that we live in a time of declining trust? Trust in what?

EMU: There has been declining trust in government for many years, but trust in government is cyclical. It was very low in the 1970s but revived under Reagan, then fell, and came back under Clinton, and then fell. Trust in government reflects our level of satisfaction with the economy and our international stature. Trust in people has been declining since the 1970s and has not revived at all. Trust in people tracks the increasing level of inequality in the US very strongly.

CHG: What can be done by business or government to increase trust?

EMU: Focus on two key things: Inequality and education. Business isn’t going to like the argument that it must take steps to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but this is the single biggest factor in whether societies are more or less trusting—over time in the US, across the American states, and across countries.

People don’t see a common fate with each other when inequality is high. Business can take a small step in the right direction by limiting the huge disparities in salaries. The huge bonuses investment houses have been giving their employees after getting government bailouts bring inequality to the forefront of people’s attention. These firms are creating social tensions that may come back to bite them.

Government needs to focus more on inequality. Education is the single biggest individual factor leading to greater trust for two reasons.  First, higher education brings us in contact with people of different backgrounds and exposes us to the roots of different cultures.  So more highly educated people are more willing to accept people of different backgrounds because they understand cultural differences. 

Second, universal public education leads to lower levels of inequality–and also to lower levels of corruption (as I show in my book, Corruption, Inequality, and the Rule of Law).  Greater equality and lower corruption foster trust in people who may be different from ourselves.

CHG: What’s the biggest misconception about trust that you find people have?

EMU: That trust is fragile, or that it can be reestablished easily. Moralistic (or generalized) trust is learned early in life, from your parents, and it remains stable for most people throughout their lives. So you can’t break trust easily.

But neither can you build it so easily. You need to do it early, and you need to get kids to interact with people of different backgrounds.

CHG: Eric, thank you so much for taking the time to share your research and thoughts with us; it is poweful stuff, and I deeply appreciate it.

This is the third installment of Trust Quotes, our series featuring interviews with leading thinkers and practitioners in the world of trust: people who apply trust in powerful ways in business and society.

This is number 3 in the Trust Quotes series.

The entire series can be found at:

Recent posts in this series include:
Trust Quotes #2: Robert Porter Lynch
on Trust, Innovation and Performance
Trust Quotes #1: Ross Smith of Microsoft on Trust and Innovation

Ross Smith on Trust and Innovation (Trust Quotes #1)

 Given Trust Matters’ attempt to be commonsensical and practical, it’s fitting that we lead off the series with Ross Smith, a line manager who uses trust daily. I first met Ross in early 2009, when he was running a team of about 80 programmers working on Windows security for Microsoft—not the first place I would have guessed to be focused on trust.

Let’s pick it up there.

CHG: Ross, you didn’t set out to do work in trust, did you?

RS: Hey Charlie – No, not at all. We started several years ago on the Windows Security team and though we didn’t realize it at the time, we were experiencing the influence of the workplace generational change, the Internet, social networking, and web 2.0 on our work and our team. The experiences, knowledge, hobbies, and expertise of people went far beyond what they did in their daily work – and we wanted to create an environment where they could be creative and apply their outside interests and experience to how they did their jobs.

We ran into a great paper “Well-being and Trust in the Workplace” by Helliwell and Huang – that equated an increase in trust to a pay raise. We thought about creative and innovative organizations we knew of, had worked on, or had read about – and some of the best practices they shared – things like freedom to fail, suggest new ideas, transparency, etc. – and realized that these behaviors are all rooted in trust. So, we kicked off an effort called 42projects, as an experiment in how we manage and engage as a team – in an effort to encourage more freedom, autonomy, play, and creativity in how we work.

CHG: Can you say more about the link between trust and innovation?

RS: Well, the term “innovation” can be a bit tricky and subjective. However, if the goal is to find new, exciting, cool, or different ways of doing things, or to generate ideas for ground-breaking new products, then people need the freedom to experiment. They will want to take risks. And, while no one likes to admit it, there’s a likelihood that that people will fail – and then they will iterate – and fail again – and iterate. We’ve all heard the Edison stories of experimentation and failure.

However, in real life, I won’t be bragging to my manager about my ability to fail, romanticizing the Edison mantra, if I don’t absolutely trust that my manager sees the bigger picture – and also trusts me to be working towards that. If we don’t have a solid relationship built on mutual or reciprocal trust, then we’re both likely to reduce risk-taking and stick to a conservative and accepted formula for execution.

Alternatively, in a climate of high trust – one where freedom of ideas and risk taking is accepted and encouraged, then as an individual, I’m more likely to try creative new approaches – and as I do, I will learn, iterate and improve. In a high trust workplace, therefore, I can be creative and “innovate”, because I have more freedom and autonomy to experiment without the fear of retribution for failure.

CHG: What are some of the ways in which you ended up exploring trust?

RS: Well, while this all looks really good on paper, in practice, trust is really just a “woo-woo” soft skill – and the world of engineering is quite structured. How do we take a right brain aspiration and develop a left brain process? I’m not sure we’ve figured it out yet, even after 4 years. But we started simply – just ask people – what behaviors do you feel influences trust?

We sat down in a room with Post-its and people wrote down behaviors that were important to them. We took that list, and built a little web-based voting game – and asked the team to play. We assumed that we could rank the list, and then go to work on the top three. But we realized quickly that trust is situational – and depends on context – and there was no one-size-fits-all solution. We returned to look at web 2.0 tools and put our ideas and research out on a wiki – and asked people to contribute their suggestions, examples, and stories.

We had a few people contribute, and we were able to compile enough useful information that we could share this as a sort of reference – a “playbook”. The big win for us was simply asking our team members to identify things that influenced trust for them. We made everyone aware of that list – and that awareness really helped individuals self-monitor and be more cognizant of their actions. I think it really helped leaders think more empathetically about their own actions and their influence on individuals via behaviors on that list.

We’ve also explored the application of collaborative play and fun on trust-building. We have used productivity games to help bring fun to the work we do, and we’ve found that as people play together as teammates, they develop deeper trust relationships in the workplace.

CHG: Along the way you also read a lot of trust literature, didn’t you? What did it tell you?

RS: Interestingly, I feel we were fortunate to be naïve when we started – we did not study before we began, we just set out on our own path. As we got going, we realized there were experts in the field of organizational trust whose experience and knowledge FAR exceeded anything we imagined. (readers – you know Charlie’s work, so hopefully he doesn’t edit this out – but he was one of these )
There are a number of great people, books and research that influenced us along the way.

[The list of  which is posted at the end of this interview]

CHG: What have you found out in the "real world" that’s different from what you read from academics and consultants?

RS: For us, it’s almost the other way around – we found a lot of great ideas in our reading that really helped improve/refine what we had been doing. Again, I think we came in to this very naïve – and it was great to be able to learn from experienced people, both in the industry as well as academia. The contextual nature of trust, how it differs across time and relationships, the importance of consistency, authenticity, and integrity, and how easy it is to lose vs. how long it takes to build – were examples of ideas we learned more quickly through reading the work of others.

CHG: How big a role do you think trust can play in business? And how far down the road are we?

RS: Trust plays a much bigger role than we realize.

I think trust is a fundamental component in everything we do – business or otherwise. What has struck me most in our journey is how the role of trust is unrecognized – or under-represented. People don’t acknowledge the existence – or non-existence – of trust as it is happening. Think about your last great manager. What made him or her great? Now think about trust. Do the same for your last bad manager. Organizations don’t really make trust a priority – or even talk about it – because it’s so hard to measure.

For me personally, in the last six months, I moved from the Windows Security team, where this work started and where trust is an obvious influencer – to the Office Communicator and Design group – that focuses on IM, audio and video communications – because I believe that as communication speed and styles continue to evolve, – from the ancient Greek runner in Marathon who delivered the message from noble to noble – all the way to the IM or web chat across the globe that happened while you read this – open and authentic communication is critical to building trust – in an organization and in society.

We are at a time when human communication is changing at an unprecedented pace. 3G cell phones aren’t even 10 years old. Twitter is four. We are at the dawn of a new era where real time global communication is the norm, and there is an exciting opportunity for digital communication tools to create and enhance trust building across organizational and global boundaries. Egyptian hieroglyphics and Guttenberg, Juan Pablo Bonet and ARPANET – all milestones throughout the history of communication – have led us to this time and place where everyone can communicate with everyone else. Language, time, and distance barriers have fallen. How do we carry forth things like voice inflection and body language into the digital realm, so that fabric of trust that’s woven into every relationship evolves in this new age of communication?

CHG: You must think that at least some people can be taught trust; how many? And how do you do it?

RS: I think people can be taught to be AWARE of trust. I cannot teach you how to trust me. I can tell you the things that influence my level of trust in you – and then, by making you aware of those, you can go out and demonstrate them – and it’s likely that, over time, I will trust you more.
It takes time. You hear all the time about “earning” trust – and to me, that means demonstrating consistency – people need to be able to predict your behavior in a given situation – and if they are able to do that successfully, you’ve taken a step towards earning their trust. It’s a bit like a game where you can earn points or a regular bank account deposit.

CHG: What do you think are the biggest barriers to enhancing trust in the business world?

RS: I think that it is the awareness of the impact, Charlie. No matter how technical or binary we get, trust is earthy-crunchy. Insert your mental image of falling backwards exercises here. And do you really want to bet your business on that? Sounds like a bit of a shaky approach because you can’t measure progress, you can’t see it. And I think the lack of solid ROI metrics for the soft skills improvements minimize significant investments – and yet, it’s fundamental to everything we do.

Trust is like that IT person who works all night long to keep the servers running, and is so tired the next day they sleep through the status meeting, and someone else gets the credit for making things work. It’s like the night crew at the burger joint who clean the grills and empty the oil vat so the burgers taste good every day. Trust is fundamental to success, a key component of healthy relationships, yet often it’s very hard to notice until it’s gone.

So, I’d say the biggest barriers to enhancing the level of trust in the business world are the lack of awareness of its importance – and the difficulty of measuring it. I read once that trust is like freedom and air – you know when it runs out, but it’s really hard to know how much you have.
The work you’re doing, for instance, with your Trust Quotient, is a great step towards legitimacy in the business world. We’re looking at some experiments with the ROI Institute to measure the ROI of our trust-related work and its impact on productivity.

CHG: Do you think business can teach the world about trust? Or is it the other way ’round?

RS: Wow! – Great question. One thing that we’ve learned is that no one disputes the value of trust. If someone comes out and suggests that “we need to trust each other more”, there are no dissenting opinions…

The world moves quickly – our world of technology changes daily. But trust-building takes time, persistence, and demonstrated consistency. It’s a luxury we may not always have. But just like you can’t cheat in farming, there are no quick short cuts to building trust. The fast pace of communication can expedite relationship building – 20 instant message exchanges might be similar to 20 post cards mailed by hand.

I think people take for granted the ease in which we can communicate now. I can take an hour on a Saturday morning and send a personal message to everyone I know – perhaps, if I’m organized, everyone I’ve ever met. That’s amazing – and yet, people rarely take that time to communicate voluntarily. It’s the small, unsolicited communication over time that opens the channels to build trust.

CHG: Where do you want to go next in your examination of trust?

RS: Exploring in more detail the impact and influence of communication on trust in an organization – We are experimenting with communication tools that facilitate trust-building and that augment and enable our trust building behaviors. We want to better understand measurement and progress – and how do we build awareness in a group of people of the behaviors that influence their level of trust. What are the economic implications of a high trust vs. a low trust environment, and how does trust influence productivity and morale.

CHG: Anything else people ought to hear from you?

RS: We really appreciate people’s interest in our work. As I mentioned, we started off quite as real novices, and it’s been a real pleasure to be able to learn from so many great people. I think sharing and collective community learning is key to advancing the ideas of trust–building and its importance. There is a large body of knowledge that we hope we can draw from and add to – and we’d love to collaborate.
If you’re interested, join our “Friends” alias – or send me email – our site is

CHG: Many thanks on behalf of TrustMatters readers for taking the time to talk with us.

RS: Thank you – we’ve learned a lot from your work – and from several others who I know read this – and it’s a privilege to be able to share our experiences.

Further Reading Mentioned in the Interview

Trusted Advisor !!
Well-being and Trust in the Workplace Helliwell and Huang
Leader Perfect Trust Centered Leadership
Mike Meutzel, Gen X / Y
Brock Dubbels
Serious Games Initiative
ROI Institute
Speed of Trust by Steven M.R. Covey,
Gary Hamel
Warren Miller – Freedom
Management Innovation Lab (case study)
Career Innovation A Guide to Trust
Paul Herr, Primal Management
Julian Birkinshaw Reinventing Management
Byron Reeves, Leighton Reed – Total Engagement
Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity by Francis Fukuyama
Trust: A Sociological Theory (Cambridge Cultural Social Studies) by Piotr Sztompka
The Problem of Trust by Adam B. Seligman (Paperback – Feb 14, 2000)
Trust in Society (Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust) by Karen S. Cook
Trust and Trustworthiness (The Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust, Vol. 4) by Russell Hardin
Building trust in business politics, relationships and life – Solomon and Flores
Reina Trust Building