Trust Bestowed or Earned – Which Comes First?

In an earlier article I commented extensively on Stephen Covey’s book entitled “The Speed of Trust – The One Thing That Changes Everything”.  This article presumes the reader already has a strong appreciation for the importance of trust in improving work relations between people and its multiplicative effect on overall organization performance.  This article offers some insights into the actual practice, even the mechanics, of building trust.

When thinking about the trust-building process, I was immediately confronted with a chicken-and-egg problem: does one party earn the trust of another party first, or does one party start by bestowing trust on the other before it is earned.  I learned a lot about this dynamic from my dog, Zelda.

Zelda is black Labrador and, like most labs, she always wants to be where we are.  Wherever we are in the house she will lay down as near as possible.  In fact, most of the time she lays down exactly under foot, directly in your way, and then proceeds to fall happily asleep.  As I would get up to move past or around her I would have to step very close to her body.  Despite the very real risk of being stepped on accidentally, she would lie there completely still and serene.  It struck me that she was completely confident that I would not hurt her; she had bestowed a high degree of trust in me, and she had done so before I earned it.

We can debate about whether dogs are instinctively trained to trust humans or whether she was bestowing “blind trust”, but what was more interesting was seeing how I behaved in response to receiving this gift.  Seeing, and feeling, the trust she had placed in my behavior, I felt an extraordinary responsibility to be careful to not step on her.  It was very important that I not betray her trust.  I wanted to validate her trust and “earn” what was already given.  It struck me that this is the opposite of our common conception that trust needs to be earned first.

In addition to earning trust, one party can ask for trust, i.e. the performer saying, in effect, “trust me”.  This was the case the first time my son asked to borrow the car keys.  I notice, however, that while my teenager son is constantly pushing the boundaries of our established trust level, he does not ask me for a new level of trust that would be way beyond my comfort zone or the parameters of our existing trust level(s).  We are engaged in the process of building trust.

More precisely it is a reinforcing cycle – a cycle of action and reaction that either builds, maintains or diminishes trust.  The acts of bestowing and earning trust are present in virtually all human interactions.   The result of this cycle of behavior with Zelda is that she and I have an amazing degree of trust in each other.  The actual cycle mechanics are that each person implicitly attempts to match the level of trust either bestowed or asked by the other; i.e. one expects to be trusted to the level of what they have earned in previous interactions, and one bestows trust only up to the level of what they expect the other party can earn.  It goes without saying the cycle is not always smooth and forward.  The cycle with my son is not linear; he is granted more trust the older he gets, but, as with most teenagers, there are also setbacks where trust is damaged and requires rebuilding.

We do not typically bestow trust way beyond what we think is justified based on our expectations of the other person’s response, and, conversely, we do not expect to be granted trust way beyond what we think the other person can accept.  The one who initiates the trust-building cycle limits the strength and dynamism of the cycle by trying to anticipate and match the expected response from the other (i.e. they limit their level of trust based on pre-judgments of the other).

Imagine if this were not the case.  Imagine if the cycle started from within without regard for pre-judgments about in-kind responses, such as Zelda bestowing way more trust in me before I had earned it.  I propose that people who bestow more trust than is “warranted”, or who ask for more trust than they have previously “earned”, build higher levels of trust very much faster.

This is not the same as blind trust.  It would be naïve to overlook the risk associated with such behavior.  In fact, risk is the special ingredient that propels and energizes the whole cycle.  Trust need not be blind.  Having bestowed a great trust does not mean you can not follow up and stay deeply involved in the execution by the other party.  Asking for frequent progress reports may still be appropriate, but the quality and mood of the dialog is entirely different.  Conversely, asking for more trust does not mean you perform in isolation from the stakeholder.  Having taken on more trust, you are obliged to be even more communicative about progress and concerns.

This discussion would not be complete without mentioning the preeminent importance of outcomes.  The trust cycle ultimately depends on whether the performer earned the trust they were given or asked for.  As Stephen Covey says, the performer’s pattern of meeting commitments is the “Big Kahuna” for building trust.  The point of this article is to suggest that managers who bestow trust on performers before it is earned can accelerate the cycle.

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