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What it means to trust

by | Essay

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is attributed with these words: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

I can imagine your response. Easier said than done, right?

Trust is a word we throw around casually, as if everyone hearing the word processes it the same way. But trust can be a hard word to pin down. If you ask five people to define trust, you’re likely to get five different answers. For some people trust springs forth from the heart, whereas for others it is controlled by the mind. Some of us describe trust as a feeling or an emotion that emanates from our gut, sort of like a primal instinct. Others describe trust as a rational calculation or thought process that’s influenced by the situation and the person or people involved. Trust is a common concept we all hold, but from a multitude of diverse perspectives. Therein lies the challenge.

I’m often asked by my clients to help them establish trust with the members of their team. More often, however, what they’re really asking for is help repairing breaches of trust. I will cover the latter in another article. For now, let’s start with how I typically respond and let’s focus on what you need to know.

Trust is an expression of vulnerability. If you’re a supervisor who is seeking to establish trust with your subordinates, it pays to make sure your understanding of trust aligns with their understanding of it. I offer my clients a research-based definition that is clear and widely accepted. According to researchers Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis, and F. David Schooman, trust is “the willingness of one person to be vulnerable to the actions of another.” Trust, then, represents a willingness to express our vulnerability.

Trust is a form of risk taking. Perhaps, a more complete definition of trust highlights what we all know to be true, but often fail to properly consider. Trust is “the willingness to make oneself vulnerable to another person despite uncertainty regarding motive and prospective actions.” This second definition by James D. Werbel and Paulo Lopes Henriques helps to cast the expression of vulnerability as a decision made in the context of varying levels of certainty. Being vulnerable, especially in moments of high uncertainty, involve accepting the risk that you might be hurt, disappointed, or even exploited as a consequence.

Trust has directionality. Trust can extend, simultaneously, in multiple directions: from a subordinate to a supervisor (upward), as well as from a supervisor to a subordinate (downward). Trust also extends from peer to peer (sideways) and from employees to the organization itself (corporate). Of course, trust also can extend from one group to another, like from the union to the management.

Trust is a decision reinforced by a plan. Trust is represented by our intentions—by our willingness to accept the risk that comes with putting ourselves in a vulnerable position. If you’re a supervisor, remember that some people may have already made a decision, sometimes well before you even arrived. What you’re likely observing are manifestations of that decision. The behaviors you encounter are simply part of their plan. There will be situations when your subordinates simply don’t plan on opening themselves up to you. They don’t intend to be any more vulnerable than the situation requires (i.e., any more than absolutely necessary). Examine the behaviors and you’ll uncover the decision beneath the surface.

Trust is not faith. Faith is a belief in the outcome without regard to the evidence—or the lack thereof. Trust, however, is a determination we come to that is influenced by our perception of the evidence around us. Hoping for a positive outcome is not the same as having faith that it’s around the corner. Don’t confuse the two.

Trust is a gift. Trust, in the midst of the evidence before us, is a generous exchange between people. Trust is a gift from one person to another. What you do with the gifts you’re given says a lot about you. Do you reciprocate or do you take what’s given to you and run? Before you ask for someone’s trust, make sure you fully understand what you’re asking them to give.

When you ask others to trust you, please acknowledge the very boldness of the request itself. Asking someone to trust you, particularly a subordinate, requires them to take a risk. By its very nature, trust means they must place themselves in a vulnerable position. The question for you is this: What can you do to make trust less risky—to make someone more willing to engage in what the science calls trusting behaviors. That’ll be our focus in the next article.

Here’s a hint: it starts with humility.

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.