The Three Dimensions of Trust
Webster offers numerous definitions for trust but the first one you would see if you were to look is: “total confidence in the integrity, ability and good character of another.”
That definition offers a fine starting point. At the same time something I read recently in the book, Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler (McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, 2002) set me to thinking about all the nuances that contribute to or detract from our ability and willingness to place out trust in others.
According to those authors there are two key factors that enter into the degree of trust we place in an other person. One of those is the person’s ability (read: skill, knowledge and experience) as it relates to the performance of a task; i.e., can we trust them to perform in a competent fashion? By example, it’s the challenge for the parents of a newly-licensed teenage driver. The teen may be highly trustworthy as to their character but invariably they lack the experience required to handle the variety of risks they will face behind the wheel.
Actually, that facet of trust is what lies behind our ability to trust objects to perform as expected. I trust my truck to get me where I want to go. I trust the bridge I cross each day on my way to the office. I trust the roof over my head. Such trust can even extend to the performance and reliability of entities as in I trust my favorite Mexican restaurant to deliver a consistent quality meal.
When it comes to people, that sort of trust is a key determinant in our decision to delegate. Specifically, do they have the experience and technical ability needed to perform the task in a timely and effective fashion?
Many organizations spend small fortunes trying to convince you and me that we can trust them and their products. For instance I still remember from my childhood the tag line to Texaco’s commercials, “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star…” What about you? What advertisements can you recall where trust was (is) central to the message?
Yet when it comes to people (as well as some entities) there are two additional factors we must evaluate starting with motive or motivation. In that aspect of trust we are called upon to make a judgment about do we trust their commitment and integrity when they promise they will do something or behave in a certain manner. The authors of Crucial Conversations suggest this element of trust is (or should be) largely situational. That is, if their motive (motivation) is aligned with mine, then I should be able to trust them to fulfill their promise(s). Conversely, when the other party is operating with a different agenda it might not be so wise to place our trust in their pledge to perform.
Unfortunately, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler stop there in their discussion. However I think there is a third, equally important element that almost always enters into the equation – that being our past experience with the individual (entity or object as the case maybe). Have they proven themselves to be dependable, reliable, a person of their word and therefore someone who is trustworthy? Or, have they violated the trust extended to them at some point in the past so that the evidence suggests a measure of risk? Having failed us in the past, can they be trusted now?
Personally, I believe this third dimension comes into play more frequently than does motive in a lot of settings and decisions if for no other reason than true motive can be difficult to judge or detect.
Of course past behaviors is a problem that could haunt just about all of us since who among us hasn’t managed to break trust with someone else at some point? Certainly I’ve been guilty more than I care to admit. And once that trust is violated or lost it is a very hard thing to re-establish.
Early on in this piece I stated that the decision to delegate a task to someone else involves placing one’s trust in their ability to perform as expected. In the workplace an act of delegation is most often thought of in the context of boss to subordinate. However, just as in the context of teams, family or the volunteer environment trust really must be a two-way street. For the employee to be effective he or she must have (earn) the trust of the supervisor. At the same time so too must the supervisor be worthy of the trust of those they would lead. Inconsistency on the part of the leader between walk and talk or talk and talk quickly calls into question the agenda (motive) not to mention the overall sense of integrity.
And though the road back from that place where trust has been lost may be long and arduous, I hope most would agree it is a road worth taking.
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?” Luke 16:10-11