Take Action: Build Trust

The Components of Trust

Trust is the essential connector. We all live interdependently and have to look to one another to fulfill routine services and help each other every day. That means the management of trust is central to all realms of personal and professional life, including the practices of management and leadership.

Trust is the pivot point, or fulcrum. In an authority relationship, we have power on one side
and services on the other. When we confer power on an authority figure, we do so because we believe she will provide us with certain valued services in return.

These beliefs are based on our predictions along two key dimensions. In practice, it’s important to manage these two key components of people’s trust–their assessment of your values and your competence.

To trust a person, it’s usually critical that we believe that their heart is in the right place, that their values orient them toward performing with integrity to provide the services that we’ve asked for.

But having shared values isn’t enough. Even if someone has a heart of gold, we also need to believe that they have the knowledge and skills and overall competence to do their job well.
So when we entrust people with authority, we expect both shared values and competence.
One without the other isn’t enough.

We don’t want a doctor with fine values if he has lost his former competence. And we don’t want a doctor who is enormously competent, but performs unnecessary surgeries to make money. We can lose our trust in people, and we lose people’s trust in us for either reason– a sense of shared values or a belief in one’s competence that has been betrayed.

We are all very sensitive to trust and to the betrayal of trust. If we were born into this world with our adult capacity for independence, we might not be very sensitive to those situations when a person fails to keep their side of the bargain.

We might easily take it in stride that someone overestimated their capacity or made some other mistake. But we are born into this world experiencing trust in the most intimate and immediate of ways–totally dependent and naturally trusting.

And we continue to depend on others every single day throughout our long childhoods and adult lives. Perhaps this is why violations and abuses of trust are so disturbing. When people in positions of authority fail to deliver on their promises, we don’t merely take it in stride.

We can feel enormous anger and resentment. We lose our trust in them. In fact, betrayal is one of the most intensely painful human experiences. If key people in our lives or enough people violate our trust, we can accumulate scars that then limit our capacity to give authority to others, as well as to take and practice authority ourselves.

Maladaptive Dependence

Authority relationships provide the building blocks that make it possible for us to build incredibly diverse organizations. They enable us to address the complex social coordination
problems that we face every day.

However, things don’t always operate well. In a changing world, authority relationships can lose the flexibility and adaptability they need and become rigid or be so degraded by distrust and factionalism that social cohesion is lost and chaos ensues.

Organizations, communities, and societies then risk dying out. Dysfunctions of authority can develop in multiple ways. In one set of ways, people fall into a state of maladaptive dependence. They have too little faith in themselves or put too much trust in others. As we grow up, we all initially defer by nature and then by habit to elders in authority.

But sometimes we never break out of the habit and realize that we are the source of a person’s authoritative powers, that we have agency. We become vulnerable to people whose trust we need to renegotiate.

We’ve sometimes learned to accept too little from our authority figures. We may need to find our voice and organize a collective voice with others to change the social contract with those in authority and make more demands.

The powers we are willing to confer and the services we expect in return. We may need to discover the radical principle articulated by the French political philosopher John-Jacques Rousseau back in 1762 just before the American and French Revolutions. In his theory of the social contract, Rousseau suggested that in authority relationships even in a monarchy
authority figures are the agents of the citizens.

In a kingdom, skilled kings and queens know that their power is contingent on the informal authorization of citizens and a dominant coalition of interested parties. Lose that authorization and you may lose your kingdom and your life. To renegotiate the social contract and claim the informal authorizing power that is ours as citizens of a country or members of an organization, we often need to organize or join a group in association, a social movement, a labor union, or engage in political action to give strength to our voice.

Another kind of maladaptive dependence we can fall into is not because we expect too little of ourselves but because we expect too much of others and are willing to entrust our authorities with tremendous power over our lives, out of faith that these high expectations will be met.

Particularly in desperate times, people will look for magic, and those vying for authority may offer fake promises and easy answers. Our exaggerated expectations create a marketplace for charlatans and make it very tough for even good people in authority to get real with us and be trustworthy.

Counter-Dependence and Independence

When we become disappointed by the people we’ve entrusted with extraordinary power, we can swing to the opposite extreme. Instead of having too much trust in authority, we can become cynical and have too little trust.

As a reaction to repeated experiences of disappointed dependence, we try to take back control over our lives and engage in a dynamic of counter-dependence, where we are at risk of reacting to whomever speaks with an authoritative voice with a reflexive no, no matter what they say.

As we will explore, counter-dependence feels like independence, but it is not. These disappointments can occur anytime, beginning in our early years if intimate members of our family or community fail us. Perhaps because many people have been abused by authority or have had their trust betrayed or perhaps because they carry the scars of their families and ancestors, they have grown to expect little from people in authority.

They hesitate or even refuse to entrust others with power. Their wariness and caution are dominant. Many of us today have become so distrustful of authority that we lose the ability to form authority relationships.

We then struggle to function well in the organizational social, political, and family settings, where we need authority relationships to coordinate both routine and innovative collaboration.

Disappointing Expectations

Let’s look at what it’s like to be in a position of authority in an organization or community where trust has gone down. If it’s just you that people have lost trust in, you’ll probably lose your job.

People will just turn to others whom they think might do the job better. Or maybe you’ll keep the job but lose so much informal authority that people will drag their heels in doing the work you’ve delegated to them or actively undermine your efforts to achieve results.

So if you’ve done something that violates people’s trust, success in your role will often depend on your ability to figure out how to repair that trust. If their disappointment is in you, then renewing trust often requires leaning into the disappointment rather than shying away.

If the distrust is only in you, then you have the great benefit that people may generally be open to trust and be more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt if you get real and honest with them.

You will probably have to speak to the issues and to the lessons you’ve learned. The point is to reset the unrealistic expectations that you helped set up to debug the social contract and move to version 2.0.

Trust is anchored best when you and your people are facing into a complex and changing reality and understand the need to learn as you go. You’ll have to discuss the gains and the losses that people may have to sustain in a change process, a change process different from what they and you had expected.

Each occasion to reset trust is also an opportunity to prepare people to accept uncertainty and move with greater adaptability on other issues. But the tendency to cover up is exactly the wrong reflex to follow. In public and organizational politics, the best defense
is not just a great offense.

The best defense is a non-defensive defense, to own your mistakes, name the challenge and the frontier you’re all facing, and locate people in the adaptive work that is
theirs to do in a larger arc of change.

There is an art to disappointing people’s expectations. It’s important to respect how quickly people can absorb tough messages. For example, in medicine, a patient may expect their good doctor to once again deliver a cure. But it may be that this time around, the doctor may have to mobilize the capacity of the patient and family to face into a tough reality with terrible uncertainty.

Some patients can move fast, but others need to move more slowly to absorb such change. Leading patients through these experiences requires adapting to each patient and family
and treating each one differently.

But think how frustrating it can be to realize that that people distrust your authority, not because there are things you have done to violate their trust, but because people have been scarred by past experiences. They may have such an ingrained distrust of authority that they refuse to give you any benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes these scars are more specific to the authority relationships within your organization. People may have had such bad experiences with others that they have developed a general distrust of your organization’s culture and structure of authority.
As part of that culture and structure, your authority might then become a casualty of this organizational distrust.

Of course, the challenge of distrust is compounded when it goes beyond one organization and becomes generalized across the authority structures in a society. For example, in the United States during the last 50 years, people have steadily lost trust in public officials
and perhaps even in one another.

So studying how to renew trust is essential to the health of organizations and to leading and staying alive in your professional life.

Reshaping Expectations

It’s much more difficult to mobilize people to do adaptive work if, for example, they are ready to see any delays in problem solving as evidence that those in authority lack the competence to steer the organization.

It’s also hard to mobilize people to push the frontiers of their competence if they don’t trust that the risks you are asking them to take are worth taking. Will you back them up when some of their experiments fail? Will you create the conditions where they can learn from their mistakes publicly with each other, rather than covering them up?

In fact, pervasive distrust in authority within an organization is usually itself an indication that the organization is up against a set of adaptive challenges. When trust is broken down, it’s probably a good indication that the current way of doing things isn’t working.

The odds are high that the organization’s relationships, modes of innovation and problem solving, and structures of authority need to adapt if the organization is to renew and thrive. So while it may be understandable that many of us have been scarred by negative experiences and have developed an almost instinctive distrust of authority, it is so important for us to recover the capacity to trust authority, to authorize one another.

This is why one of our goals in this course is to renew your capacity to trust those in authority and to practice authority well yourself. To repair damaged trust, you may need not only to take greater risks every day where you give authorities the benefit of the doubt, but also to become more trustworthy yourself as an authority in the roles you play in people’s lives and work.

Many of you will know the concept, “abuse generates abuse.” Studies show that most people in prison who’ve abused others were themselves abused often as children.
Abuse begets abuse.

Exactly how this works psychologically isn’t entirely clear. But I can think of at least two possibilities. First, abuse generates a sense of entitlement–the belief that, because I’ve experienced injustice, I deserve special rewards. Second, the drive to overcome the traumatic experience can lead one to repeat it, but this time with a sense of mastery rather than victimization.

Of course, the sense of mastery is false. Like counter-dependence, you’re not really free
so it’s not really mastery. Switching roles from victim to abuser is simply and tragically succumbing to being controlled by one’s past. The point is that authorities that betray trust have often themselves been scarred.

For example, in many newly independent countries that were colonized for centuries in Asia, Africa, South America and even Europe, people developed cynical and unrealistic ideas of authority based on the untrustworthiness of the colonial administrators.

That deep distrust was certainly shared by the founders themselves who organized the independence movements. But rather than model a new form of trustworthy authority, some founders, and even those in their generation, acted instead like the previous colonial administrators, breaching the trust and damaging the hope placed in them as heads of their new, free governments.

So in this course, we also want to strengthen your capacity to be trustworthy. And that’s not easy because it may mean coming to terms with your own distrust in authority, learning how to engage in a non-defensive defense, and learning how to manage people who often will have unreasonable expectations of you in your positions of authority.

They will have expectations you can’t meet and shouldn’t even try to meet. That means you will need to transform the expectations of authority–yours and theirs. So they better reflect the challenges you will be asked to help people navigate.

10 Strategies for Renewing Trust


Be an example for others by actively engaging in new learning. This doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect. In fact, being honest with others about the difficulties that you encounter can be just as powerful.


In the midst of change, it’s easy to lose sight of the conditions and goals that led to the need for adaptive work. Reminding others of the what and why can help them reconnect and recommit.


Start by acknowledging the role that you played, a strategy sometimes referred to as “owning your piece of the mess.”


Be honest when communicating potential outcomes and losses. This includes being willing to say, “I don’t know.”


People don’t fear change; they fear loss. Recognize those real losses publicly and be honest about the sacrifices people must make as part of adaptive work.


Use your diagnostic efforts to see beyond anger to the context and perspective represented. Why might this person feel this way? Rather than meeting anger with anger, try using the interaction as an opportunity to better understand the pressures at work on people within the system.


Adaptive work requires new learning. Rather than letting stakeholders and groups struggle in private, create the conditions to help people learn from one another.


Allies are a resource, but it is not enough to simply identify them. Engage allies (and their factions) in the work to be done in order to draw upon their sources of trust and strengthen the network of bonds of trust.


Make the opposition a part of the conversation by engaging key stakeholders regularly. Including all perspectives contributes to a fuller, and more honest, view of the work to be done. Show them that you appreciate the losses you are asking them to accept.


Listen to participants from across the system and seek to understand as many perspectives as possible. Remember that diagnostic work is ongoing. Engage feedback regularly and signal that you value the opinions and experiences of others.

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