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Trust Me…It’s Complicated (Part I of II)

Posted by David Wight in Leadership, Team Building | 0 comments

Imagine the scenarios for the executive teams of two different companies. The team for company A has been together for a number of years and they have been very successful in overcoming a variety of difficult problems. While they often disagree among themselves when making decisions, they respect each other and overall they share positive working relationships as well as temporary leadership with the president when a particular issue calling for their competencies emerges. Each member would tell you that they communicate openly and everyone thinks in terms of what is best for the organization. The company B team has been together for a shorter time and their interaction is characterized by very different dynamics. They have struggled to make decisions that everyone supports.   The members have a lot of hidden agendas which prevent people from saying what they really think, and there is a lot of backbiting, and a lack of respect for each other. A number of members have been known to say that they think they could be doing a better job than the current president.

The presidents of both companies has just been notified by their Boards that they have 6 months to increase the company’s revenues and turn its profitability around, or they are going to be replaced. The two teams are having their first meeting since the presidents received this news.

Do you think the discussion of this mandate will be different within the two teams? Which team do you think has a better chance of increasing the company’s revenues and returning it profitability within 6 months?

If your answer is company team B you can stop reading now; it’s a waste of your time. If you answered team A, then my next question is: What is the fundamental difference between these two teams?

There are a variety of possible answers: Respect for each other, their decision making ability, the length of time they’ve worked together, their cohesiveness.    All of those answers are accurate, but there is a more fundamental answer: that’s the issue of trust.


Why Trust Is So Scarce in Organizations

Few things in life are more difficult to create or more fragile than trust. I’m not talking about the basic trust that an infant has in its mother, which hopefully survives through the infant’s childhood, but a more mature trust……what Solomon and Flores refer to as authentic trust in their book Building Trust. According to these authors authentic trust “…is a judicious combination of trust and distrust, superior to blind trust which is foolish precisely because it bars distrust from consideration….Authentic trust is trust with its eyes wide open. (Solomon and Flores, Building Trust, p. 46)

It’s particularly difficult to create trust in hierarchical organizations because there is a power imbalance between levels that leaves people in a position of relative vulnerability. . Put more simply, a superior is usually in position to hurt a subordinate more than vice versa, because the superior has more formal authority and greater access to the organization’s reward structure both in terms of conferring or withholding rewards, or imposing punishments. This imbalance means the subordinate is almost always more vulnerable than the superior.

This has huge implications for trust between hierarchical levels because at its core, trusting another person involves making the choice to risk being vulnerable to that person. To trust his/her superior means the subordinate must decide to increase their vulnerability, and I think most people would agree that it becomes more difficult to trust someone as your vulnerability to that person increases. That’s part of the reason why, with rare exceptions, employees don’t talk to their manager the same way they talk to peers or as one older employee once said in a workshop I was facilitating, ““If you think you talk to your boss the same way you talk to your peers,…you’ve been smoking something funny!”

I still remember when a professors introduced the idea of latent paranoia within companies. At the time, I thought this was an exaggeration and I said as much. My professor just smiled and said, “Ok, Mr. Wight, answer one question: How often does the grapevine in an organization carry good news compared to how often it carries bad news? I was much more careful about challenging him in the future!

In addition to its overall scarcity, trust tends to decrease as people move up in the hierarchy, because the stakes get raised leaving these individuals with more to lose, thereby increasing their vulnerability. A consultant once told me about a top executive who refused to make eye contact with anyone when he addressed his executive team during their meetings. The consultant described how uncomfortable it made everyone around the table, how terrified the other members were of this CEO, because they had so much to lose. I think it’s safe to assume these members didn’t have a lot of trust for this executive; probably also safe to assume that having his subordinates trust him wasn’t particularly high on his list of priorities. In fact, he was actually more interested in emphasizing the power imbalance he enjoyed over them.

Conversely, however, it’s also difficult for superiors to trust their subordinates. That’s why they say “it’s lonely at the top” Even if the subordinate has been very reliable, does a great job, and has never done anything to cause the superior to question his or her trustworthiness, the power imbalance tends to impact the superior’s perception of the subordinate’s behavior. The superior may attribute the subordinate’s behavior to the formal authority and power his/her position gives them over their subordinates.



The Elusive Nature of Trust

From my perspective, three inter-related factors impact trust:

  1. First, is a person’s capacity to trust other people. To state the obvious, people who have experienced more pain when they trusted others will be less inclined to trust, than those who have primarily experienced positive outcomes. There’s an interesting self-fulfilling prophecy that can be involved here, however, with people who indiscriminately trust others. An example would be someone who refused to lock their car doors because they maintained that “you should trust others.” On the surface such individuals appear to have a high capacity for trust. In reality however, that capacity is actually very low because eventually such blind trust almost inevitably leads to heartache. You leave your car unlocked often enough, and eventually someone is going to take something from your car.   This actually confirms the blind trusting individual’s more deeply rooted belief that “you really can’t trust anyone.”

2. The second factor is the perceived trustworthiness of the person to be trusted. We’ve all encountered people whom we would probably characterize as untrustworthy.   They’ve told lies or misled others, or failed to keep their word or their commitments. Maybe they’ve manipulated people by saying they had one objective, when in fact, they have a totally different objective in mind. These are often the people who have left spike marks on the backs of the people they climbed over on their way up the corporate ladder. A person’s capacity for trust (#1) further complicates this perception.

3. The third factor is an internal cost benefit analysis that the person who is deciding whether or not to trust someone either consciously or unconsciously. As we’ve discussed, the greater a person’s vulnerability or possible loss, the more that individual is going to be reluctant to trust. But you also have to consider what the person thinks they stand to gain from trusting. It’s one thing if a person stands to gain $5; it’s a whole different ballgame if the person you think you could gain $500,000.

The other issue is the subjective probability that trusting the person will actually result in the potential gain. This can range from O to 100%. If I stand to gain $500,000, but the subjective probability of this occurring is only 2%, then I’m going to be less inclined to make myself vulnerable by trusting than I would be if that probability was 50%. This takes us back to the issue of trustworthiness and our assessment of the individual’s ability to deliver the benefit.

This Subjective Probability of Possible Gain is also impacted by the first two variables, a person’s capacity for trusting and their perceived trustworthiness of person to be trusted

The decision to trust (DT) can now be expressed as:


Decision to Trust (DT) =                   Possible Gain (PG)                      X             Subjective Probability of                                                                   Vulnerability (V)                                         Possible Gain (SPPG: 0-100%)


The higher DT, the greater the probability that the person will decide to trust:

As an example:

My best friend who I’ve known for more than 20 years approaches me with a sure-fire way of earning $50,000, but it will cost me $10,000 to get in on the deal.

PG = 50,000

V = 10,000

My best friend is a person of both high integrity and competence (according to me), and has a track record of successfully making these kind of deals.  From my perspective he is very trustworthy, and my assessment of his ability to deliver on the results is also very high. On a scale of 0-100%, I put the SPPG at 80% or .8

DT =  50,000 (PG)   X   .8 (SPPG)   =   4

10,000 (V)


If my PG goes up to $100,000, then my DT increases to 8


If my V goes up to $25,000 then my DT declines to 1.6


If my SPPG goes down to 0 because my best friend is completely untrustworthy (let’s make him a complete stranger who comes across as “slimy,” then my DT is 0. The higher my DT, the more I should decide to trust.


While I think this is a step in the right direction as a way of thinking about trust, the dynamics of trust don’t fit neatly into a mathematical model.

There is something intrinsically desirable about being able to trust someone. It makes us feel good. When we trust, it makes the world a little less hostile, cold and lonely. It narrows the interpersonal distance we maintain between ourselves and others.  Trusting is something we want to be able to do, and most of us wish we could do more of it.   The argument could be made that this adds to the PG.

Trust also has an element of reciprocity. There is a reason people talk about “building trust.” If someone trusts you, meaning they risk being vulnerable to you, that tends to make them more trustworthy in your eyes.   At the very least it arms you with the ability to retaliate at some level, and that power serves as a deterrent to the other person violating your trust and taking advantage of your vulnerability. Conversely, it strikes me that it’s pretty difficult to trust someone if you know they don’t trust you and vice versa.


Part II: Building and Maintaining Trust

In Part I, I discussed the scarcity of trust within organizations, and some of the basic dynamics involved when a person decides whether or not to trust an another individual. In Part II, I will discuss what you can do to build trust, and how to maintain it.




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