What is trust?

If I offer you my trust am I –

  • Agreeing with you?
  • Doing what you ask of me?
  • Offering robust feedback?
  • Protecting your feelings?
  • None of the above?

What is considered a sign of trust to one may appear as a betrayal to another.

We cannot define the minutia of every interaction, but without a shared understanding of what trust means it becomes another meaningless word on the annual report next to ‘integrity’ and ‘collaboration’.

And yet, because trust is vital to personal and professional life, we need to understand what it is and how to build it.

One way to understand trust is as a set of agreements about how we will behave towards one another. These agreements may be implicit or explicit and, over time, they may change.

For example, an implicit agreement is that parents feed their children. While parenting obviously requires more than this, a child’s dependency demonstrates the way in which obligations emerge by virtue of the type of relationship that exists.

While we are personally responsible for the quality of our work and behaviour irrespective of our role, certain positions come with legal obligations, for example, of company directors to provide a safe workplace.

Many agreements tend to be explicit, we sign a contract to do a particular role for a salary, deliver a product to a standard, give our word, although not always with the gravity it deserves.

One reason people fail to do as they say is because the consequences of breaching their word do not appear tangible or far-reaching.

But trust is not an abstract concept. The consequences are real and the things that we do add up.

It is known that trust has a physiological impact on people. Trusting someone can make us feel safer with positive health effects. On the other hand, even a small breach of trust can be difficult to overcome and can have a negative impact on physical and mental health. Some psychologists believe that makes trust part of our biology, or physical. Being betrayed by someone you trust most can be devastating, even if that trust was misplaced and should not have been extended in the first place.

Would you take your word more seriously if each time you broke it, someone bruised?

According to Assistant Professor at Rutgers Mauricio Delgado the brain’s neurobiological structure and activity suggest we are biologically wired to trust.

Social psychologist Shelley Taylor also believes that trust drives brain development and has contributed to our success as a species because it enables us to collaborate.

In business there’s the view that only the fittest survive and that this is part of our Darwinian inheritance. But Berkeley Professor Dacher Keltner says this is a misinterpretation. Darwin believed sympathy was a stronger instinct than self-preservation and that we are profoundly cooperative in the way we live.

Trust affects us at the most fundamental level and we should take it as seriously as the need for food and shelter.

The rewards of trust are likewise tangible. There is evidence that trust contributes to economic, political and social success.

Right now there is a lot of interest the degree to which the behaviours that create trust may be chemically induced. Dr Paul Zak, Director of the Centre for Neuroeconomics at Claremont believes that oxytocin (a molecule) regulates social connection. He says that regulating the amount of oxytocin in the blood can increase trust.

There is not yet enough research to determine whether these experimental observations sufficiently mirror life experiences or show causal links.

And although the implications for increasing social good could be profound, for most of us, wrongdoings are pretty much within our control.

This does not mean that to be trustworthy we have to be perfect. We all make mistakes. But we need to be mindful of what we sign up for and follow up by doing what we say we will do.

We can earn and maintain the trust of others by agreeing on what it means in a particular context and then behaving in ways that deliver on those agreements.

To build trust you can:

  1. Be mindful of the decisions you make, they come with consequences
  2. Accept your responsibilities and recognise they are implicit in every relationship whether or not you want that to be the case
  3. Accept that you will make mistakes and that these can be communicated to people who are impacted
  4. Never pretend a conscious act was anything other than what it was, intention is very different from accident
  5. Where you have agreements that are no longer healthy for you to keep, renegotiate them. Trust does not mean that what we agree to can never change, but the way we manage those changes is important
  6. Only make commitments, however small, if you intend to follow through
  7. Honor your word, the impact is real.

 Dionne Lew



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