Home   Resources   Articles   The Three Characteristics of Trust

The Three Characteristics of Trust

Trust is desirable because it is a "characteristic of human (and organizational) flourishing"…a virtue that enables individuals and systems to thrive.(5)  Trust affects the perceptions, attitudes, and performance of individuals and groups, and it facilitates cooperation, decreases costs, and improves the ability to manage complexity.(5)  It enables adaptive behavior and a better ability to lead and manage change; it promotes and sustains interdependent relationships and smooth operations.

High trust organizations adapt more quickly and have the advantage in attracting and retaining talented employees. These companies are reliable and effective, and have earned trust through demonstrating legitimacy in their monetary systems and internal operations, and compliance with both legal and moral obligations.(5)

However, when change occurs it introduces individuals and systems into a phase of discomfort, anxiety, and disease. These feeling-states are threatening in any environment and the extent to which trust exists contributes to organizational viability and the capacity to take risks.

Three Characteristics of Trust

So how do you develop and maintain trust even in times of change? There are three characteristics that are deemed to be essential to the development and maintenance of trust; and all three must be present for optimum trust to exist.

Robert Bruce Shaw, the author of The Balance of Trust, describes them as results, integrity, and concern. Sociologists, Roger Mayer, James Davis, and David Schoorman call them ability, benevolence, and integrity. David Lewis and Andrew Weigert's describe them as levels of trust: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. To move toward a more integrated model of trust, the words I want to talk about are competence, character, and compassion.

The First Characteristic: Competence

Competence is the combination of technical and adaptive capacities that enables individuals, groups, and systems to share and achieve a vision. It is the demonstrated ability to obtain results.

To earn trust in any organization, especially in business, the first imperative is to fulfill your obligations and commitments. This is measured by performance. This means that the organization knows why it exists, what it is capable of doing, and delivers tangible results consistently. It is able to meet its commitments to a clearly defined market and it demonstrates an ability to achieve or exceed goals over time. This level of demonstrated competence is vital to achieving trust.

In order to gain trust an individual or organization must be able to deliver on their promises. The measure of success varies but in business, the bottom line is that trust is created when goals or expectations are met or exceeded. As Peter Drucker reminds us, "The foundation for doing good is doing well."

Competence includes the cognitive ability to evaluate and discriminate between individuals and organizations to determine which are to be trusted, to what extent, and in what circumstances. This is the leadership capacity we describe as "reading reality truthfully in order to respond responsibly." It is a moral and ethical practice.

This component of competence-cognition relies on the use of intellect and reason in making judgments and decisions. It assumes that trust is a choice, a decision made based on objective knowledge and reason.(1)

This isn't that simple because individuals bring to organizations varying degrees of openness and willingness to trust that are based on early life experiences and relationships with parents, other authority figures, and peers. Everyone brings emotional baggage to organizations and it's important to address this and be conscious of it so that space is created in which "clean" communication can happen. Cognition begins with self-awareness.

One smart executive told us that whenever she is placed in a new position she takes time to talk to everyone with whom she will be working. She asks three questions during the meeting:

  1. What might I need to know about you that will facilitate our work?
  2. What do you need to know about me?
  3. What advice would you give me?

These questions are the beginning of a process of establishing the communication, relationship, and trust necessary for success.

This executive was confident that she could establish trusting relationships because she confronted her own emotional issues and did her inner work.

Striving for the Mean

In their paper, "The Structure of Optimal Trust," the authors (Wicks, Berman, and Jones) offer Aristotle's' ethic of the "golden mean" as a way to think about a position of trust as non-extremes and to eliminate an either/or understanding of trust. One example of "over trust" is Enron, which led to unethical and illegal practices and catastrophic consequences for those who put their trust in the company. The practice of lifetime employment in Japan, which led to "Crony Capitalism," is an example of "under trust." The assumption of automatically being taken care of creates dependency and diminishes creativity.

One of my observations during a recent visit to New Orleans when interviewing leaders in politics, government, philanthropy, economic development, and religion is that one of their greatest challenges is "under trust." They have many familial groups with restricted membership and very tight boundaries and there is a long history of little communication between them. It is a tribal culture, and as the city attempts to rebuild itself, the lack of trust will need to be addressed.

The emotional component of trust is important to address. Over time our accumulated experiences and stored emotional associations are transformed into perspectives that determine the propensity to trust.

For most people trust is on a continuum from over trust to under trust. If too little trust exists, the leader or the culture can be over controlling. Micromanagement squeezes the innovative spirit out of people and systems. An environment of restriction and fear will not build trust. But we must seek balance. If we dispense with our cognitive capacities altogether and let the emotional/affective state of trust dominate our judgment, we may take unnecessary risks and create an environment of reckless or illegal behavior.

When all cognitive content is removed from the emotional dimension of trust the result is "blind faith."

The Second Characteristic: Compassion

Compassion is an awareness of one's connection to, and interdependence with, others. It is the extent to which a person is believed to have the best interests of the other in mind. It includes a high level of empathy that enables the capacity to genuinely care for another person, group, or organization. It is showing concern for the needs and interests of others and caring about them as much, or more, than those of your own. The motivation to care is not ego-driven or primarily profit-oriented.(3)  It inspires benevolent behavior and mutuality, central to trust. Trust engenders trust; when we act as if we trust another they are more likely to return the trust.

Compassion is based on genuine respect for, and valuing of, others. It is this emotional investment in people that enables them to reciprocate, not out of obligation, but out of gratitude. The spirit of gratitude reinforces the spirit of giving. The result is a culture of abundance and a group of people willing to take risks that benefit a greater good. Those who depend on a leader want to see that the leader is trustworthy. "Individual belief's about another's ability, benevolence, and integrity lead to a willingness to risk, which in turn leads to risk taking in a relationship."(6)

As previously noted, the emotional or affective element of trust is the emotional bond that exists between those in a relationship. "Trust creates a social situation in which intense emotional investments may be made, and this is why a betrayal of trust arouses such outrage. The emotion is, not just about the content, but also about the destruction of a relationship."(1)  "The affective element enabling trust has a clear moral element. The emotional bond in question is not just in the relationship but is in large part a belief in the moral character or goodwill of the trustee in the trusting relationship."(5)

The Third Characteristic: Character

The third element of trust is character or integrity. Integrity is consistency of action and credibility born from congruence between values and actions. It is coherent in the way an organization or an individual operates internally and externally. Character reflects the degree of integrity a person or an institution possesses. We address this in our "Inner Work of Leadership" workshops, which enable individuals to reflect on their identity, core values and beliefs, and the relationship between these and their actions. This means that an individual or organization is conscious of the ways their values are manifested in the organization's day-to-day operations and in its relationship with employees, vendors, stakeholders, and the community-at-large.

The alignment between organizational mission, vision, people, and structure creates congruence. If, as Robert Shaw states, that leadership, organizational design and structure are "the most important leverage points in building trust," then this is an important alignment. In ancient religions, people saw the place where two circles overlapped as the mandorla- the place where they and another interconnected. This space was seen as the place where the Divine and the transcendent could be encountered.

Trustworthy leaders believe in the existence of the inner life and they tend to it and develop it. They know that self-understanding and self-development are as important as the cognitive capacity to "read external reality truthfully." They are very aware of their own beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and perceptions, and aren't prone to accepting the projections of others. They are therefore able to demonstrate integrity and character in responding to others, which builds trust.

Edgar Schein says that the major function of leadership is the creation of culture. In my view, this responsibility is not the leaders alone but there is no denying the power of this position and the effect it has on an organization. If the leader hasn't done their inner work and confronted the unacceptable aspects of themselves they will project them onto others and out into the culture. If they are out of touch with themselves, they will not be able to engender trust.

People bring differing beliefs about trust into the workplace. Some believe that people are well meaning and reliable and therefore are disposed to trust others. Some believe the exact opposite. It is the role of leadership to address these differences through clear vision and values that overarch everything. Leadership enables people to align themselves to something worthy and bigger than themselves. When individuals are willing to invest in a company, and create interdependence based on belief in the moral character of others, a foundation is developed from which they can take a leap of faith and create higher levels of trust.(5)

Leaders with character view trust as a way to increase their, and the organization's, effectiveness, but understand it is not a guarantor of success. And when failure happens they acknowledge and explain it, take responsibility for it, and work progressively to accomplish the goal armed with new insight. This is what builds trust.


These three elements--Competence, Compassion, and Character--are what create trust and they are also what sustain it. To determine whether your organization is a high trust environment you can look for the existence of the following Indicators of Trust©:

  1. Performance at a high level and the capacity to attain or exceed desired results.

  2. Genuine concern, care, and empathy for others.

  3. Alignment and congruence between values, beliefs, and actions.

  4. Adaptive leadership skills— the mobilization of people to engage in real work; management of group/system, anxiety, and ambiguity; the capacity to form cohesive community, the ability to resolve conflict.

  5. Honest, open, and direct communication.

  6. Engagement in inner work— self-awareness and insight; authentic and ethical actions; self management of anxiety and ambiguity.

  7. Shared leadership— dispersed power and authority at many levels.

  8. Respectful processes of listening and discernment.

  9. Capacity to learn— openness to learn from success and failure.

  10. Empowerment of others— ability to influence not control.

  11. Sense of abundance— propensity to give without expectation of reciprocity.

  12. Belief in the transcendent— a sense of faith in something larger than the self; an appreciation of the sacred.

The particular form any combination of these may take will vary according to context, organizational history, and culture. Striving to incorporate these will enable the development of a culture of trustworthy individuals and organizations.


(1) Trust as a Social Reality J. David Lewis; Andrew Weigert Social Forces, Vol 63, No.4. (Jun., 1985), pp. 967-985.

(2) Initial Trust Formation is New Organizational Relationships.  D. Harrison McKnight; Larry L. Cummings; Norman L. Chervany The Academy of Management Review Vol. 23, No. 3. (July., 1998) pp. 473-490.

(3) An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust. Roger C. Mayer; James H. Davis; F. David Schoorman  The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 20, No.3 (July., 1995), pp.709-734.

(4) Trust in the Balance, Building Successful Organizations on Results, Integrity, and Concern, Robert Bruce Shaw Jossey-Bass, 1977.

(5) The Structure of Optimal Trust:  Moral and Strategic Implications.  Andrew C. Wick; Shaw L. Berman; Thomas M. Jones  The Academy of   Management Review, Vol. 24, No.1. (Jan., 1999), pp.99-116.

(6) The Role of Trust in Organizational Setting, Kirt T. Dirks; Donald L. Ferran, Organizational Science, Vol. 12, No. 4 (July-August 2001), pp.450-467.

(7) The Decision to Trust, Robert F. Hurley, Harvard Business Review, September, 2006.

(8) Soul at Work, Margaret Benefiel, Seabury Books, Church Publishing Company, New York, 2005.

About the Author

Katherine Tyler Scott is the managing partner of Ki ThoughtBridge. Katherine is the founder and former President of Trustee Leadership Development, Inc., a resource center for governance leaders and not-for-profit organizations, located in Indianapolis, Indiana. She has more than 30 years of experience in leadership education and development, consultation, coaching and facilitation. Katherine is a nationally recognized speaker and has written extensively on the topics of leadership, trusteeship, organizational development, and change work. Read more about Katherine.

"I have worked with a number of facilitators and mediators over more than 30 years of contract negotiations, and I must say that the Ki ThoughtBridge staff were far an away the most skilled and effective I have ever worked with."

- Tom Israel
Montgomery County Education Association