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.

3 replies
  1. John
    John says:


    I like your chicken or the egg analogy. It surprised me at first because one always hears that you have to earn trust. Therefore how could
    trust exist before it is earned? Yet, we see examples frequently.

    It is a little bit like faith. We all need faith to function in the world. As Tony Robbins says, “we have to have faith the floor will hold us or that the people driving in the other lane won’t cross the line, or we couldn’t function.” The same hold for trust. We have to trust the merchant to
    provide safe food. We have to trust the geek got all the viruses and did not plant one. Living together in a society requires trust.

    I am looking forward to how this thinking develops. For myself, I have considered myself to pretty trusting. When that trust is betrayed, my capacity for trusting is damaged a bit. Kind of like Steven Covey Sr.’s
    emotional bank account; there has been a withdrawal without a corresponding deposit. With all of the news about betrayal of trust (think fraud and corruption in the news) I think many are naturally skeptical.

    Is there a way to start trusting again? Yep. Start trusting again. It is still a leap of faith. And when it is repaid with trust and support life is so much better.

    Take Good Care

  2. Ajax Woolley
    Ajax Woolley says:

    Remarkable, Charlie, you just framed the discussion so effectively with a simple post, yet so much exploration remains ahead. It struck me while reading that alongside the habituation toward mistrust of certain archetypes, maybe we’ve over-emphasized the part of trust that relates to “predicting another’s response”. What I mean to say is, if I’m trusting you in the sense of intimacy, versus trusting in the sense of reliability, the dynamic changes. I trust your instincts, your gut-level loyalty, your creativity— but I may not trust that I can predict the outcome of your response to my input.
    Yet we seem to be conditioning ourselves to “avoid risk” by only trusting in those whose behavior we can predict; even when we don’t ourselves understand the criteria for why we should grant trust. So our conditioned behavior inadvertently creates exposure to risk, as in the case where we gravitate to the familiar person (or brand) over a new one. Although it may not fit us perfectly, or even better than the newcomer, our belief that we can count on a predictable outcome becomes a proxy for real trust.

  3. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Great comments, John and Ajax – thanks!

    I hadn’t thought of how trusting comes up against the instinct of “earning trust,” but of course one is trusting and the other is about being trusted. Thanks for the added depth to the distinction. And I love the “just start trusting again” advice, it’s so right.

    And Ajax, interesting point about how we’ve come to emphasize reliability and the behavioral component at the risk of downplaying the intimacy dimension. I think you’re right, it’s a one-dimensional view and one that’s increasingly present, as you say.

    Thanks guys for pushing the thinking along; this is fun!


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