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Building Trust


This month we will start out with a little test (after all, I am a professor). Let’s compare four hypothetical managers. Terry is honest and cares about the employees, but isn’t very skilled or knowledgeable. Pat is very knowledgeable and skilled, but is only interested in getting ahead, even if it means lying or stepping on employees. Alex is also quite skilled, and seems to care about the employees, but is known for saying one thing and doing another. Casey’s actions indicate a deep sense of guiding values, concern for employees and a high level of knowledge and skill. Which of the four is most trustworthy?

For most people this is pretty easy to answer: Casey is the most trustworthy. Let’s see if we can understand why. (Although we make initial trustworthiness assessments when meeting someone for the first time, we’ll focus on long-term trust in leader-subordinate relationships.) Trust is built over time in a continuous cycle of deciding how much we should trust another, examining the outcomes of our interactions, then recalibrating our trustworthiness assessments. Usually this is done almost subconsciously. Conscious or not, we perform this assessment and recalibration for every meaningful interaction with another person.

Dozens of academic studies have examined factors that we consider when assessing trustworthiness. Three characteristics seem particularly important: integrity, benevolence and ability. When assessing trustworthiness, we make subjective evaluations of these characteristics. So, it doesn’t matter how much integrity you actually have, what matters is whether your followers think you act with integrity.

The first two of these, integrity and benevolence, concern underlying motives. Perceptions of integrity are based on the degree to which your followers think you adhere to a set of principles or values. For example, I don’t lie, ever. (As a child, I lied to my father once … just once. The resulting rather robust punishment convinced me that lying was a bad idea.) If people believe that this principle guides my actions, they see me as having integrity and being more trustworthy. The impact of integrity on trust depends on how well your values match those of your followers. Researchers call this value congruence. The closer the match, the more perceptions of integrity impact trust.

Benevolence is the degree to which you want to do good for others, beyond any egocentric profit motive. If your followers believe you take their needs into account when making decisions, they will see you as benevolent and trustworthy. The degree to which benevolence impacts trust depends, in part, on how well you understand your followers’ needs and wants. Your intentions may be noble, but if you just don’t understand your followers, perceptions of benevolence are a bit of a roll of the dice.

Good intentions mean little if you lack ability. You may have worked for someone who was perfectly nice, but was incompetent. While you might like this person, you wouldn’t trust them. Technical ability (the knowledge and skills required to do a specific job), interpersonal and communication skills, and general wisdom all matter when assessing ability.

All of these work together to form our trustworthiness assessments. To trust someone, we must believe that she can (ability) and will (integrity and benevolence) do the right thing. “Can-do” without “will-do” or “will-do” without “can-do” equals a lack of trust.

One of the most effective ways to build trust is through openness. I’m a big believer in clearly communicating your core values and the reasoning behind important decisions. Then, actually do what you say you will do. Over time, openness combined with ability will build your reputation for trustworthiness. Of course, you can’t always fully explain every decision. Followers don’t have access to the same information and knowledge that you do. However, they may come to trust your decisions even when they don’t fully understand why you made them.

Trust building is a never-ending process. Once broken, trust is difficult to rebuild. So, it’s important to understand what harms trust. The biggest threat to trust is inconsistency –actions that are inconsistent with your values, values that are inconsistent with your followers’, actions that are inconsistent with the needs of your followers, actions that are inconsistent with expectations. Also, be sure that your actions are consistent with your words. Lip service without matching actions quickly degrades trust.

Whether you or they realize it, your followers evaluate your trustworthiness every day. They evaluate your decisions and your actions through a lens of trust. When your followers trust you, they follow your lead with little questioning. When they don’t, they view everything you do with suspicion. Building trust isn’t easy, but the return on the investment of time and effort pays incalculable returns. Trust me on that. FBN


The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to more than 2,700 undergraduate and master’s students. The college’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, go to





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