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.  In it, they used the following scenario to beautifully illustrate the complex factors that form our capacity to trust.

Let’s pretend that you lend someone a DVD (remember them?) to watch with the understanding that they will return it to Netflix when they are done.  You find out that they forgot to return the film.  Would you trust them again?

Got your answer? Let’s move on to the next scenario.
Now imagine that the person you lent the DVD to told you they sent back the movie, but you see the film in a pile of mail in their car?  Where’s your trust level now? Would you lend them another DVD, or anything, in the future?  We have used this scenario in countless seminars on Trust to generate some real incisive thinking and dialogue about the nature of 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.

Some of you may be asking, what the heck – it’s just a DVD. And who even uses DVD’s anymore? Hang on, you’re missing the crux of the situation – how we trust. Context matters, yes, but all of us carry around lots of rules (& beliefs) about who, how and when we trust. Undoubtedly, some the examples we have unearthed in these conversations will ring some bells for readers.
Some typical responses to the first scenario:

  • Yes, I would give the person another chance
  • Yes, it’s just a DVD
  • Depends on who the person is (ah ha! This is a biggie because for most people that’s a decisive factor – with Trust – CONTEXT matters – the who, what and why of it shapes our decisions to trust)
  • Never again. Burnt once, won’t get burned twice (an oft heard collective belief that can draw rock solid parameters around our experiences)
  • Never lend anything to anyone anyway! (admittedly this response is a minority one – but every group we’ve worked with has at least one)

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.

Back to the second part of the scenario (where you have made the choice to trust and you were “betrayed.”)

*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.
Some more typical responses:

  • It reinforces that people can’t be trusted
  • Once I am let down by another person, I won’t risk trusting again
  • Lying is unacceptable and I won’t tolerate it
  • People can forget, especially if they are busy and absent minded
  • I would approach the person and tell them I saw the DVD and ask them what happened

Interesting range of responses, don’t you think?  Where do you find yourself gravitating?

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

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  1. Karen Hirsch says:

    Dear Louise and George,
    I think you’re striking “gold” in your 2 (so far) postings re “Trust”!
    I confess to be taken aback at the common use of the word “betrayal” to describe a wide range of situations in which someone didn’t get what they felt they had a right to expect from another person.
    For me, betrayal has the component of intentionality. Someone deliberately led me on, lied to me, wanted in some way to hurt me.
    For sure it Does feel horrible to be on the receiving end of being betrayed. I just looked up some synonyms for betrayal. They include: disloyalty, unfaithfulness, treachery, duplicity, infidelity, perfidy, deceit. Yikes!
    Then, there’re the countless other situations in which people don’t do what they told us they would do – that in no way involved a deliberate intent to cause harm. In these cases, I could imagine feeling disappointed, frustrated, let down, even perhaps angry. But betrayed??
    And, when I’m really candid with myself (which I think is a very good thing to be – as long as I do it gently rather than with a bludgeon:-), there have even been times when had I thought in advance based on what I knew about someone else, I should have realized that it was unrealistic on my part to expect them to do what they said they would do. That is, I would take a good chunk of the responsibility for how things turned out.
    OK, this may all sound like I’m making too much out of this, but I believe passionately that the language we use not only reflects how we feel, it can actually distort and contribute (as in the case of using the word “betrayal”) to feelings that are way over the top from what actually happened.
    At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I think it’s potentially dangerous to ascribe to someone the willful intention to do us harm (to betray) even when there was no such intention. How can we ever assess accurately what’s going on in a situation if what we’re feeling is so intense that we can’t think straight?
    I’d welcome hearing from you or blog readers any other takes on this.
    Thanks for “listening”:-).

  2. Louise says:

    Dear Karen,
    Thanks so much for the WONDERFUL comments.
    They have all the makings of a juicy guest post – we’d love that.
    No question that Trust is a HUGE and critically important topic, especially NOW.
    That is one reason why we plan to do multiple posts over time on the subject.
    Trust is at an all time low – and as a society, we’re not talking about it in constructive ways. Seems like a collective “acting out” process is going on. One problem is that like emotional intelligence and conflict management – we are not taught the skills that are essential to build trust.
    Your points about language are so important to this conversation. Unless we begin to take personal responsibility for the impact language may have on ourselves and others – we will continue to escalate emotional confusion and misunderstandings.
    The language we use often reveals a lack of emotional literacy. We use a word like “betrayal” to describe an experience that upon reflection, is more akin to, as you say, disappointment or frustration.
    Your comments also point to another important factor in this discussion – the role of beliefs.
    In our training programs and coaching relationships we often find that unpacking the typically huge bag of beliefs people are carrying around is an essential part of restoring trust and rebuilding relattionships. As you wisely point out, what we “believe” about another’s intentions can make the difference to trust or not – to forgive or not.
    Thanks again for the rich conversation!

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