Trust is such a critical thing in business. Understanding what trust is, and how to develop it and leverage it is critical to success. Often an even more important question is “how do I rebuild trust when it is broken?”
In part one, we looked at what trust really is (predictability of behaviour), its value and its costs. In part two, we explore the concept further, and how it can be leveraged for maximum advantage.
How is trust built?
We develop ‘trust’ in something or someone in highly personalised ways. In fact, many people would not be able to describe how they know who they can trust, except for a vague statement like “I get a feeling about them”. Feelings and emotions (or ‘intuition’) are often poor methods for deciding who to trust. It can mean that some people, when faced with the same situational cues, will be too trusting, whilst others will be too suspicious – depending upon their personal disposition.
Who (and what) should you trust?
How do you determine who to trust, and what to specifically trust? In most circumstances, people will define ‘trust’ based upon a feeling that they have. It is the emotional association that we have with the people or group which most people rely on when they determine who to trust.
As social animals, people look to facial expressions, including micro-signs, to determine ‘trustworthiness’ as part of developing first impressions. Within 0.2 of a second, individuals take in facial expressions and get an immediate sense of ‘trustworthiness’, which is generated as an emotional association triggered by the amygdala in the brain. A small smile is enough to provide a positive trust signal, anger or aggression leads to a negative trust signal. A neutral face provides no emotional valence. Each of these is immediately associated with our image of the person, and serves as a marker of ‘trust’ until a greater number of data points of experience can be gathered.
The other way that people determine who to trust is to generalise based on categorisation. Someone may not trust ‘used car salesmen’ – even though, within this category, there are a range of individuals who behave across the spectrum of ‘trustworthiness’. Perhaps a career criminal will not trust ‘the coppers’, but someone else may trust all police without question. This generalisation is a cognitive bias which greatly impacts on how individuals can make massive errors in over-and under-trusting in a specific situation. It means that people can be induced to act based on false premises, or fail to act due to unnecessary suspicion.
This means that if we belong to a ‘class’ of individuals that are not trusted, we have to differentiate ourselves from the group (by re-labelling ourselves into a separate category). On the other hand, if we want to be trusted, we can define ourselves into groups that carry high trust. Based upon Millgram’s famous experiment, people will cede to authority (“9 out of 10 dentists recommend..”) at an incredible rate and to extreme degrees. Presenting yourself as an ‘expert’ or ‘authority’ is often used to create a short-cut to being trusted, even when it is not really deserved. It is not until behaviours deviate from what we expect of such ‘authorities’ that we have cognitive dissonance, and are forced to re-evaluate our beliefs about that individual. Up until this point, humans will use conformational bias to justify and preferentially identify behaviours that fit our ‘trusted’ belief about the individual (meaning, they can get away with a lot before you are triggered to re-evaluate your trust). But when it breaks – the asymmetry of trust comes into play and it can be very difficult to regain that lost trust.
If you are not clear on how you determine who and what to trust, you are open to manipulation.
How should we determine what to trust?
Once we understand that there are emotional and social elements of trust that can be manipulated, it is valuable to assess trust through a more thoughtful lens. If we were to consider trust as a tool for creating a way to reliably predict future behaviours and outcomes, then we can think about how we should ‘trust’ someone. Using the three levels of trust, we can seek to understand a person’s (or an organisation’s) purpose, values and behaviours, specifically in the context in which we seek to trust.
We can then observe the actions and behaviours that are deployed by the person we are seeking to trust. We can determine the level of consistency in these actions against the three levels to confirm our understanding of the individuals, their actions, and their motivations. In particular, when we can identify similarities or overlaps in our purpose and values, it provides a basis for us to benefit from trusting.
If we want to consciously build or evaluate trust, then we can focus on the three levels or frames in which trust can be developed.
The first is trust in behaviour. At a behavioural level, we see patterns of behaviour in a particular context that allows us predict that that behaviour will be deployed again. We see a boss yelling at a number of employees, and we start to ‘trust’ that this is a behaviour that they use in these circumstances. We need to be careful because we often ‘generalise’ behaviours to believe that they will be present in different contexts. For example, there may be someone who we ‘trust’ on the football field as a team mate to come to our aid if things get rough, but they may be completely untrustworthy if they get their hands on the football club’s money. Behavoural level trust must always be established, and evaluated, in context – and it allows us to predict behaviours only in that context.
The second frame is values based trust. In this instance, we are aware of the values of another person. These values, if constant, allow the person to select appropriate values-based behaviours in a range of contexts. Being able to trust in someone’s values is more powerful and important than trusting in their behaviours, because this shifts the ‘trust’ from a context specific response to a generalised approach to selecting and deploying behaviours. When we trust others’ values (usually because they align to our own), the level of trust is much deeper and more likely to resilient to behavioural change (if we see that a person is operating through their values, we accept a much broader range of behaviours).
The third frame is purpose-based trust. When we understand a person’s true purpose, it allows us to recognise this as the ‘driving force’ behind all choices that they make. People are often flexible in some of their values, and even learn to adapt their values, in pursuit of their personal purpose. Consider the ‘freedom fighter’ who would blow up a bus and harm innocents to achieve peace.
As we are aware of someone’s purpose, it gives greater depth of understanding not only on the behaviours selected, but also the values that the person chooses to invoke in that circumstance. Personal purpose is the greatest motivator and driver of behaviour. In this case, when we have ‘trust’ around purpose, it provides a meta-framework to really understand the motivational drivers that sit behind the values and behaviours which are what the person puts on display. It allows a deeper and more flexible framework for ‘trusting’ someone – when we know their purpose and motivation, we can have greater trust in which values and behaviours they deploy in the circumstance to get there.
Relationship strength should never be seen as a proxy measure of (positive) trust. If we believe that the relationship is strong and valued, then we are likely to have ‘trust’ in that person and the relationship. This is not always true and often gets people into trouble – there are several people with whom I can have a positive relationship in one sense, but I would honestly not trust them with my bus fare.
If we fail to distinguish between relationship strength and trust, then anyone who builds a ‘relationship’ with us is building trust with us by proxy. People can spend time building a relationship to make us ‘trust’ them, however their intention is to leverage that perceived trust for their own benefit. Understanding that relationships and trust are not the same is important to avoid being the ‘mark’ in a con, or being taken advantage of.
How is trust lost?
Often trust that is built up over time is lost through the way that people behave. It can be lost in two significant ways:
With a single action that is completely against the values and purpose we expected, and against our own purpose and values. This creates cognitive dissonance – so that we are forced to immediately re-evaluate what we understand about that individual. We often allow flexibility in others behaviours if we have purpose-level trust, up to the point that this flexibility breaches our own purpose, values and standards.
With a number of small actions, which in and of themselves have little impact on trust, but which add up over time to describe a pattern of behaviour which we believe are not serving our common purpose. We see this often in corporate settings, as individuals gossip, act differently with different people, and sacrifice others to serve their own purpose, small actions add up to break trust. Trust can be eroded, or it can be stretched to the point where one small action ‘is the straw that breaks the camel’s back’.
Breach of trust can trigger identity level issues for people, meaning that they are likely, consciously or unconsciously, to become highly self-critical around choosing to trust you, and personalise the breach of trust. The inner critic may be saying “You should have known better”, “they really didn’t like you”, “you are not important enough to be treated any better”… or any other of the internal scripts that run. This works to ‘train’ the person to be fearful – and suspicious – of that person or object in the future. Because this happens at such a deep, personal level, it can be exceptionally hard to recover from that.
Can trust be re-built?
Trust is asymmetrical – It is easy to build based upon your actions. However, once it is perceived as broken, it can be particularly difficult to rebuild. The cost, energy, effort, and time required to rebuild trust is much larger compared to the original costs of developing it in the first instance. This also implies that when trust is lost, there may considerable costs involved simply to be seen ‘on par’ with someone who is unknown and where no trust has been established. For example, if you breach trust, someone you may want to do business with may prefer to deal with a neutral party rather than you, and it may require additional effort, time and investment to be seen as equivalent to an unknown party in the same transaction.
Rebuilding trust means overcoming the distrust, then rebuilding trust. All previous investments in the relationship are lost, and in fact you are likely to start in ‘debt’ (to use Covey’s emotional bank account as a metaphor).
If you have breached trust and want to rebuild it, here is a simple process to follow:
- Accept responsibility for breaching trust, and accept that it may be difficult or impossible to rebuild.
Admit to the other party the truth of what happened. Your authenticity will be critical here. This is not the time for lame excuses or blaming others. “I admit that what I did was wrong and breached your trust”.
- Appreciate the other person, in particular the positive aspects of the relationship that you value (why you would want to rebuild trust). “I appreciate your integrity and kindness, and have always valued how you have treated me and others in the past”. This gives the other person an understanding of why you would want to rebuild trust with them.
- Apologise for the impact of what you did. “I’m sorry that you feel this way. I deeply apologise that my behaviour has caused you to think of me like this”. Do not start with the apology, but work toward it. Your apology needs to be sincere and address the perceived ‘wrongs’ that occurred. Remember, it is their subjective trust that is broken. It is not about the facts, but about how they personally interpret them that counts.
- Avoid arguing over facts. It is not about what happened, but how they feel about what happened. Arguing over the facts will not solve the problem, it may only deepen it.
- Alert them to your intentions, purpose and future actions. “It is my intention to work to rebuild the trust that we had. My purpose is to … . You can expect me to do…” This sets up a framework by which they can start to develop certainty in your ongoing behaviour and actions. It is also useful to ask “How would you want or expect me to behave if this situation arose again?” – this allows you to work out of they have completely unrealistic expectations, if the actions are congruent for you, or it gives you a very clear basis for choosing your actions. Alerting them to your purpose can also offer greater scope for behaviours to be accepted or understood.
- Act. Begin to rebuild trust through demonstrating consistency in your actions. When you think you have done enough, you have probably only done 1/3 of what is required to rebuild trust. Therefore consider that you will need to invest three times the effort and time in being absolutely consistent to have any hope of rebuilding the trust that has been lost.
It can take time, and if people still don’t trust you based upon their personal stance, you can’t make them trust you, you can only invest and work to rebuild and recover your trust.
How should we think about trust in business?
In business, we sit on both sides of the trust equation: We both seek to build trust to help us transact with others, and at the same time need to evaluate others as they try and create and build trust with us.
If we are attempting to establish trust:
- Understand what you want to the trust to achieve. Are you investing in building trust in the right people? Are you building trust for the quality of the relationship, or some transactional outcome? (both are fine – it doesn’t have to ‘leveraged’, it can just be great to develop some quality, trusting relationships).
- Build relationships with those with whom you want to establish trust. People often use relationship strength as a proxy for trust (even though it is not), and often it is the key way that people learn how to trust each other.
- Make a great (trustworthy) first impression, with your facial expressions, body language and first actions.
- Be clear on your purpose and share this with the person you are building trust with.
- Find commonalities in your purpose (how your purpose overlaps with theirs) and commonalities between you. This strengthens in-group identification and builds trust.
- Act in ways that are consistent and build trust. The more consistent you are, the more people will work out how to trust you. Keep your word, honour your purpose.
- Ensure you are not grouped with people who are not trusted. If you are a ‘used car salesman’ who is working with someone who does not trust this whole category of people, how can you change what you are called so that you can be seen as different (even a whole new category) to avoid being generalised into mistrust?
If we are seeking to evaluate if someone can be trusted:
- Discover their bigger purpose. Find out how it aligns to your goals and purpose.
- Observe their actions, values and purpose. Look for consistency over time, and across contexts.
- Define the context in which you want to have a relationship with the individual, and where the trust will be valuable to you.
- Look for how they treat others, and the response of others to them.
- Be aware that there may be very specific reasons people are seeking to build trust with you. Are they seeking your trust to take advantage of you in a transactional situation?
- Do not base your measure of trust on a ‘feeling’. Really think about the consistency of behaviours, values and purpose in a considered way.
Trust is a key social driver of connection between people, and has real value in business. When we understand and utilise ‘trust’ in a considered, authentic way, we can create real value. If we build trust and breach it, it can be costly and have a real negative impact on your outcomes.
Work out who you trust, and why. Work out where you can enhance trust, maintain trust and be aware of how others will seek to build trust – and make the most of it in life and in business.