Should People Have to “Earn” Your Trust?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This post is a previously published reader favorite.

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 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.

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