Should Trust Be Freely Offered or Conditionally Earned?

By Linda Fisher Thornton


Should We Trust Right Away (or Wait for People to Show That They Can be Trusted)?

When we meet someone new, should we trust them right away? Should we assume that they are trustworthy and give them the benefit of the doubt, or should we hold back until we are sure that they are worthy of our trust?

Each of these approaches has a powerful impact on the trust level within our organization. One has a powerful positive effect and the other has a powerful negative effect. Let’s explore the pitfalls of waiting for others to earn our trust, and the benefits of extending trust freely.

Pitfalls of Waiting for Others to Earn Our Trust

We erode trust by waiting for others to earn our trust. If we meet someone new and think “They have to earn my trust,” then we are intentionally withholding trust from them. We are automatically assuming the worst about their intentions and their level of trustworthiness.

This “wait and see” way of thinking about trust can lead to a low trust culture in several ways.

  1. If we are wait for someone to be trustworthy (and assume that they won’t be), our assumption will change how we treat them. Think about how we might treat someone we think is untrustworthy. Will we be eager to share ideas, offer support and collaborate?
  2. If we are waiting for someone to prove that they are trustworthy before we trust them, how will they be able to tell that we are trustworthy? If we don’t use behaviors that extend trust, how can we expect them to trust us enough to extend trust?
  3. If each one of us is waiting to see if the other will earn trust, we will quickly descend into a stalemate, with neither one extending trust. It will be very difficult for us to work together successfully while stuck in this stalemate. We may even look for examples of the other person’s untrustworthiness (examples that  prove that we were right about them) and miss the positive things that they do.

Benefits of Extending Trust

We can build trust by assuming that people will be trustworthy. If we meet someone new and choose to trust them right away, we are automatically assuming the best about their intentions and their level of trustworthiness.

This type of “assuming positive intent” can lead to a high trust culture in several ways.

  1. If we expect someone to be trustworthy (and assume that they will be), our assumption will change how we treat them. Think about how we might treat someone we think is trustworthy. We will be eager to share ideas, offer support and collaborate.
  2. If we are not waiting for someone to prove that they are trustworthy before we trust them, we can demonstrate that we are trustworthy by extending trust to them. If we use behaviors that extend trust, we can expect them to more quickly trust us enough to extend trust in return.
  3. When one person extends trust, and the other reciprocates, it is easier to work together successfully. We may even look for examples of the other person’s trustworthiness (examples that  prove that we were right about them) and overlook the small negative things that they do.

Trust is Relational – It Takes Two

So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Extending trust or earning trust?

Trust in the workplace works best if we give people the benefit of the doubt. We must reach out and extend trust in order to receive it.

Stephen M. R. Covey says it well in his book The Speed of Trust:

“Trust is reciprocal – in other words, the more you trust others, the more you, yourself are trusted in return.”

Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything

When we withhold trust as a general rule (for no good reason), we are eroding trust.   When we assume the best and extend trust (for no good reason), we are building trust.  

Sometimes people will disappoint us when we extend trust. Most of the time, though, people will delight us with how well they do when we expect the best from them.

Related Posts:

5 Unethical Phrases: Low Trust

Trustworthy Business Behavior


For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC 



  1. Hello Blake! If you haven’t read it, I would recommend the book “Smart Trust” by Stephen M. R. Covey. It digs into the complexities of balancing extending trust with being aware and not being taken advantage of.


  2. One thing I have always noticed in articles like this, is that they never address what to do when someone violates that trust that was given.
    Do you:
    Continue to give trust to someone who keeps violating it?
    Is it then ok to withhold that trust?


  3. Brian,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on the dance of trust building. It does work best when people are eager to prove themselves trustworthy and when people tend to trust others (with their eyes open, of course). Stephen M. R. Covey calls it SMART trust, when you are open to trusting others but are also aware and attentive so that you are not taken advantage of.


  4. I definitely think that a lot of times people say and do things that can be misinterpreted; trust is not an open-sesame to reality. That is, we should be willing & eager to grow in trust, and that builds long-lasting meaningful relationships. When people expected to be trusted wholly & blindly all the time, and someone has a lapse of trust but then needs it to be proven—it is not okay to say, “Well, you should have trusted.” People should be eager to prove themselves. I have plenty of sociopaths use good, trusting people. When people shut others out because they have difficulty trusting, it is like deciding that no skittish cat should be loved, or deserves a chance; I am quite fed up with all these supposed articles & spiritual philosophies telling everyone how they should be all the time. It’s a big, beautiful dance—and winning people’s hard-earned trust sometimes is what intimacy is all about; it gives us boundaries & borders to navigate our lives. Some people want to break down all of our trust barriers and be “completely trustworthy” so they can have their way with us; it doesn’t work this way. We need to have a general good faith & sense of judgment that we learn in life, which is emotional maturity, and work to continue to grow in it. That is how we develop priceless relationships THAT WE WANT, and not just something that is afforded to us by the most forceful, trustworthy individual. Life isn’t just about living it’s about loving, and we have the right to love WHAT MAKES US HAPPY, and not be made to be forced to simply endure WHAT KEEPS US ALIVE (is trustworthy).

    We need to have faith, and then afford boundaries & barriers to where we see fit in order to CREATE the social arrangements & lives we want rather than being a big open door for the universe to decide for us.


  5. I freely offer trust with achievable conditions for earning it, as a contract between my subordinates and I.

    As a leader of personnel who secure people, property and information, I have had one successful principle I have used: whenever an employee or a new team is assigned to me; my opening statement to them is that regardless of their previous work ethic, honesty, beliefs about other ethnic groups within our work environment, or the job itself, I desire them to recognize that: “‘today is the first day of the rest of your lives and I would judge you on the performances that you put out during your time with me’. ‘You will be given unconditional trust relative to the way you show trust to your team-mates and your exercise of a new philosophy: ‘I will perform with quality and show honesty, loyalty and camaraderie in all that I do'”.

    Very rarely has this ‘turning of a new page’ for personnel I have managed failed to produce trustworthy, productive, quality Officers.
    Arthur B.F.


  6. Assuming the context is the workplace, the concept of “trust but verify” seems sensible. Trust is a key building block for many other aspects – including the willingness to delegate, but you don’t typically delegate a task unless you think the individual has the skill, ability and experience to do it properly – in essence, you trust them to do the job. But delegation is not abrogation of the responsibility; similarly, one can argue that “trust” is not static, but a dynamic, situational factor, which needs constant attention if it is to be sustained.


  7. Excellent topic. Thank you for the opportunity to add to the thoughtful comments. In my life experience there is real value in obtaining trust by example/action. This does not preclude the value of withholding a professional trust until it is earned, in fact a strong case exists for doing so. This does not mean we are no longer eager to share ideas, offer support or collaborate because it is the most direct manner that we all can accomplish a multitude of tasks. This position also does not mean we look for the “wrong” in people with whom we share and collaborate. In fact it means we look for reasons to trust given to us by example, communication skills (both verbal and written) and a stong past professional history. This then is not as much about “withholding” as it is about developing much needed personal skills so that when trust is bestowed it is very much earned. We need to further develop personal skills such as listening, and be aware that since trust is reciprocal it takes time to build as does any relationship of value. Only then can it be most productive for each participant.


  8. I totally agree that as a leader you need to assume positive intent with others. You also need to create an environment that you can be trusted. you have to walk the walk of trust. This will be a building block for trusting others.


  9. I agree that assuming positive intent with others, right off the bat, is good for both the individuals involved and the organization. I must temper that with something my husband often says…trust but verify. The decision to trust probably should be made carefully, not jumping to trusting on critical issues without clearly understanding the facts and concepts behind what is being trusted.

    I also think that communication plays a big role in “assuming positive intent” – if you think you are proven wrong on your assumption, ask the person about it. How they respond to your sincere inquiry goes a long way toward building deeper trust.


  10. I’m a giver too! Glad but not surprised that you agree with me! Givers gain, as they say, or even ‘be the change…”

    Warm wishes



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