WHO DO YOU TRUST? And Why It Matters

“Trust is a delicate property of human relationships. It is influenced far more by actions than words. It takes a long time to build, but it can be destroyed very quickly. Even a single action – perhaps misunderstood – can have powerful effects.”   Douglas McGregor, author of the business classic, The Human Side of Enterprise

The Wharton School of Business published an article (Promises, Lies, Apologies: Is it Possible to Restore Trust?)  about the research of three of their professors on the variables of trust.  While the article is older and uses an example some readers may not relate to (remember DVD’s?) the essence of the issue is still relevant. Why and how we trust is the heart of the matter. It is question that gets to the essence of our decision-making that influences every choice we make. 
In the above-mentioned article, the case example refers to a person lending a DVD to a friend. The lender discovers that the friend has been “less than honest” in reporting that they returned the DVD to Netflix. Depending on your scale of truth-telling assessment, they lied. Or fibbed. Your language for thinking about this matters. 

Another thing that matters in any trust scenario is context. What’s the context of the issue? If this lender assesses this incident as “trivial,” or no big deal, etc. then the trust level between these two friends may not be harmed or even altered.

HOW I think about this person and the nature of the relationship to me is critical in terms of impacting my trust level.  I am likely to respond differently to a short-term roommate than I would to my brother.

WHAT the trust issue pertains to is another crucial aspect of how I decide to trust. Lending a book or in this case, a DVD, may seem minor to many people. While lending someone money, ups the stakes considerably for many people. In fact, when it comes to big ticket issues like money, people’s hard and fast beliefs kick in and trust issues escalate considerably.

In our work, we’ve used many different scenarios to help people learn more about their operating systems for trust.  It has raised some fascinating questions about the dynamics of trusting – and trustworthiness. Typically, it provides a pathway for us to see the rules, conscious and unconscious, that drive our behavioral choices in relating with others.

In the case of lending things to other people, we’ve discovered some interesting typical responses along the way:

  • I have no problem lending certain things to friends, family or co-workers, as long as they return them in a timely manner.
  • I have a problem if things are not returned as promised.
  • If I find that someone has not been honest about the reason they returned something later than promised, I would not lend them to that person again.
  • I don’t lend people things because I don’t think I will get them back. 
  • I used to be more of a lender, but I got burnt too many times and decided it’s not worth it.

It is important to note here that when explored, most people say their choices are governed almost entirely by their past experience. While that may seem logical, unless you want to base the rest of your life’s decisions on the past (and for many of us, this is usually based on what’s not worked rather than what has worked ) this may be the time to examine the beliefs that drive your choices.

Another interesting aspect of the article scenario is the experience of lenders that discovered they were not being told the truth. The language refers to a lender’s “sense of “betrayal.”

Take note that the words we use to describe our experience play a big role in how we actually feel as a result.  For some, the word “betrayal” would seem a bit over the top to describe something as simple as the lending of a DVD.  Often our language is “too big” or hyperbolic for the circumstances which tend to trigger us more emotionally. Even though the word betrayal is commonly used in research and writing about trust issues – it is one of those powerful words (like deception) that can evoke the strongest emotions and reactions. These reactions can and do cloud our perceptions and drive us to make choices that can be unwise and often inappropriate to the current circumstances we face.

Finally, it’s also important to say that the Wharton study found that promises to correct future behavior and apologies (that must meet a series of criteria to be accepted as “sincere”) do matter.
If you want to understand why you trust it is critical to explore the criteria that affect your choices to trust, or not. Are you more/less trusting with family and friends than co-workers? Do you believe that relationships, especially at work, can thrive without trust?

As more studies show the importance of psychological safety in the workplace, isn’t trust one of the “tough” conversations we need to have more of? But, first, let’s have it with ourselves.

Thanks for reading,

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants

Join our mailing list for our occasional news!

Leave a Reply