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The reasons why people trust you

by | Essay

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”

― George MacDonald

George MacDonald, a 19th Century Scottish novelist, once wrote: “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” That’s a pretty bold statement, even by 19th Century standards.

Perhaps, if I look at this from a different perspective, MacDonald is on to something quite thought provoking. If being trusted is a compliment, maybe among the highest of compliments, it says something about just how elusive trust can be—maybe more elusive than love—at least that’s what MacDonald is challenging us to consider.

If trust is, indeed, hard to secure, why is that the case? Better yet, what are the factors that influence whether or not we trust one another?

Believe it or not, this is precisely the question posed to me recently by one of my clients. “When people are weighing whether to trust or not to trust,” he asked, “what exactly are they looking at?”

As I often do, I look to research for answers. Researchers around the world and in multiple disciplines have some clear lessons for us, particularly for those who supervise others.

Researchers tend to agree that there are at least four primary factors that affect perceptions of trustworthiness and decisions to trust. They are as follows: 1) You—the person being trusted (i.e., the “trustee”), 2) Them—the person doing the trusting (i.e., the “trustor”), 3) the interactions between the two of you and, when relevant, 4) the character of the organization.

Let’s start with you. There are three specific things your subordinates rely on when they are assessing your trustworthiness. The first is their perception of whether you care about them. Research tends to describe this as your benevolence or goodwill toward those who report to you. The second is how they judge your ability and competence. The third is their perception of your integrity and of the organization’s administration of justice and fairness.

Let’s take these one at a time, starting with you and the various dimensions about you that matter.

1a: Benevolence matters. Research suggests that benevolence is an important factor we rely on when deciding whether or not to trust someone. Do you have my best interests at heart? Whether you refer to it as benevolence or goodwill, people are more likely to trust you when they perceive you genuinely care for them and for their well-being. Note the emphasis on the words perceive and genuinely. If you do care about someone but are unable to express that in a way the other party recognizes, you won’t get credit for it. Likewise, if you try to fake care, when deep down you could care less, it’s also less likely to work. Benevolence that is recognized and that is sincere both contribute to creating trusting conditions.

1b: Ability matters. Your ability, or at least how others perceive your ability, is a second factor that affects trust. Researchers call this the “can do” element of trustworthiness. People are more likely to trust you when they have confidence in your knowledge, skills, and abilities. This is especially true in situations marked by high levels of risk and uncertainty. I’ll trust my doctor to prescribe me medicine, but not necessarily to fly my plane.

1c: Integrity matters. This ought to come as a relief. Unfortunately, in today’s climate, it actually seems a bit counterintuitive. What research tells us, however, is that integrity is in the eyes of the beholder. People are more likely to trust you when they believe your actions align with values and principles they deem to be acceptable. Your integrity is not only being judged by criteria set by others, it’s also being judged based on your past actions and behaviors. People will often look into your past for evidence of actions and behaviors that line up with their own.

2. The other person matters. Put slightly differently, it’s not always just about you. The person doing the trusting also matters. Each of us has developed what researchers call a propensity to trust. This is one way to describe our tolerance for risk and our willingness to accept being vulnerable in a relationship. Some of us enter relationships with a high propensity to trust, whereas others enter relationships highly skeptical. Often, our propensity to trust is shaped as much by our interpretations of our past as they are by our perceptions of our present. Accept the fact that there are some people (and some groups) who simply are slow to trust, regardless of the circumstances.

3. Your interactions matter. This is probably the one factor that people routinely overlook. Whether it’s out of neglect or ignorance, the way we “show up” in the presence of others significantly influences their willingness to trust us. I call this our personal wake. Like a boat moving through the water, we also leave a wake in our path each day we interact with others. Sometimes the wake is calming and comforting, while at other times it can be rough and turbulent. The interactions between you and those you supervise are important because they create ripples that can reach far beyond the actual interaction.

4. Climate matters. It’s probably not a surprise that the fourth factor that affects trust is organizational climate. An organization with ethical norms that are shared and respected widely among employees will create conditions that promote trust. Organizations that promote the psychological safety of employees will contribute to the development of trust. If employees perceive the organization, at large, cares about their well-being they will be more likely to exhibit higher levels of trust. If employees believe the organization’s policies and practices are enforced fairly and consistently, they are more likely to exhibit higher levels of trust.

These four constitute the primary factors people turn to when evaluating whether or not to trust you. As you pay attention to each of them, there are some additional things worth considering. Power is one of them.

Remember that the relationship between you and your subordinates is asymmetrical—meaning there is an imbalance of power. If you’re the supervisor, you hold the power and that affects your relationship in so many ways. Trust is undeniably affected by power, so use your power wisely.

Another thing to remember is that trust does not automatically increase over time. This is a common refrain, but the evidence is mixed. Finally, remember that it is highly likely that the people who report to you may base whether they should trust you or not on the very person who preceded you.

If you’re a new supervisor, accept the fact that you’re likely to be compared to your predecessor. If your subordinates perceive the departure of the former supervisor positively (i.e., they’re happy to see him or her go), they are likely to approach you with a relatively higher level of trust. However, if your subordinates feel negatively about the departure of your predecessor, they are likely to approach you with a diminished level of trust. How people feel about your predecessor and his or her departure affect how they are likely to approach you.

Trust is an outcome that is shaped by many factors. Now that you know them, the ball is in your hands.

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.