Working With Trust

Great article in HBR this month about trust. Trust is a huge issue for me, and I see it all the time in organizations. It was “half” of an article I co-wrote for the Journal of Association Leadership a couple of years ago on trust and conflict. One of the challenges of the topic is that trust is inherently squishy and intuitive—a “feeling” you have (thus not something you talk about much in organizations).

Robert Hurley takes a bit of the mystery out of it in his article about “The Decision to Trust.” Drawing from the long-standing research on trust and his own work, he pulls out ten factors that go into the decision to trust someone. Three of the factors are about you, the truster, and the other seven are about how you see the other person—the one in whom you are placing trust. For example, one of the factors about you is your tolerance for risk. If you don’t like risk, then that’s a mark against you trusting anyone (makes sense). No single factor, of course, determines whether or not you trust, but when you look at all ten, you can see what might be getting in the way of trusting someone. And then you can actually do something about it. That’s why I like the article.

There are a couple of things that really stand out, though. The first is that one of the factors about the other is “number of similarities.”

At heart we are still quite tribal, which is why people tend to more easily trust those who appear similar to themselves.

So much for diversity! The logic is, people who are like me are more likely to act like me, or at least act in ways that are in my best interest. I feel like he opened up a huge can of worms here, and then just closed it up. I think that many of us probably do have that subconscious logic, I’m just not sure that it is true! I find it interesting that one of the factors driving trust could be seriously misguided logic.

I do like, however, that if you want to build trust between two people or two departments, you can pick and choose what to work on from among the ten factors, recognizing that some will be harder to change than others. Just work on the easier ones! You may not be able to change how similar or different two departments are, but you may be able to work on educating people about the alignment of their interests, or working on better communication (two other factors). Trust is not, in the end, about the two parties completely liking each other or singing kumbaya together, but if you can get enough of these ten factors lined up, you’ll end up on the right side of that intuitive “trusting” feeling, that makes a big difference in productivity.