How Trust Works

February 17, 2017 By Katherine Tyler Scott

Once again I am drawn to the subject of trust the glue that holds everything together.

What is Trust?

According to IBM’s Institute for Knowledge Management researchers and authors, Daniel Z. Levin, Rob Cross, and Lisa Abrams it consists of two components – benevolence and competence. Researchers Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis, and F. David Schoorman[1] identified a third component – reliability. We have developed a model that incorporates this research.  The Ki ThoughtBridge model uses the language of Competence, Character, and Compassion as essential to trust.


Competence is trust that the other party is skilled and knows what they are doing. This component is associated with a shared vision and shared language.

Benevolence is trust that the other party will not do you harm and is associated with strong ties, shared vision, shared language, and a belief that the person will be discreet and receptive.

Reliability is the belief that the other person’s actions and words are congruent. This means a belief that the person will consistently adhere to a set of explicit principles. There is no empirical evidence that this aspect of trust has as much effect. The trust that we believe is most effective is the integration of all three.

Why Does Trust Matter?

The present tumultuous political environment, vitriolic rhetoric, emergence of the phenomena of “false news” and “alternative facts,” the hyperbolic claims, blatant mistruths spewing from the highest office in the land, and the vicious verbal attacks on any dissent have threatened to destroy the social fabric of many communities. I am stunned by the passive aggressive abdication of responsibility by those in the majority. The constant denigration of democratic institutions; i.e., the media, judges, courts, the public’s right to protest, etc. in what is still the world’s most powerful democracy is leaving a cosmic size sinkhole into which too many leaders have fallen. Their collusion with an assault on trust is legitimizing an idolatry of individualism, power over principle, and giving rise to a reign of moral relativism.

While the first responses to such a quick loss of trust is shock, then denial, followed by efforts to reason, and ending with what is now a vacillation between flight and fight; it is time to confront the damage. Over the past year we have seen a continual increase in incivility, racial divisions, intolerance and scapegoating. It’s almost impossible to reflect on how we got to this point without recalling the self-launch and dismissal of traditional norms of civility that began on a descending escalator. It has become symbolic of the current state of trust.

Trust provides stability and a sense of security in individuals, groups, and systems. It conveys a sense of order, predictability, and accountability so that work can get done. It keeps chaos at a manageable level so that people can exercise their creativity and more readily develop effective responses to problems. When trust exists it enables vulnerability so risks can be taken that lead to new insights and increased maturity in individuals and higher functioning in groups. Trust aids individuals and groups to deal with high levels of anxiety without resorting to regressive behaviors that derail progress.

When we trust we do the things we think we cannot do; we can excel and contribute to the well-being of others. Trust is, as leadership pioneer Warren Bennis would say, “the glue” that holds everything together. The absence of trust creates a gestalt of paranoia in which irrationality prevails; distortion of facts is reinforced, and misinformation becomes the norm. Ultimately, the conditions created when trust is absent lead to a level of toxicity, disruption and corruption in relationships.

What is the Relationship of Trust to Leadership?

Robert Greenleaf’s test of leadership was whether followers were left better off or at least not worse off than before. Leaders who undermine trust lack this minimal moral standard of do no harm; they create conditions in which their increased power and control over others is justified. The systemic disruption that the lack of basic trust causes opens up space for the emergence of coercive power and dictatorship. It nurtures a loss of belief in the system’s capacity to meet the survival needs of people. This loss of confidence is an indicator of a loss of self-efficacy and explains the search for and dependency upon someone seen as a savior leader rather than a servant leader.

The trustworthy leader engenders positive, emotional, economic, physical health and well-being of those who follow. Followers are treated as equals and are given the opportunity to develop their abilities to the greatest extent. Power is not treated as a commodity to be traded to the highest bidder; it belongs to all. The exercise of power is power with not power over. The more that power is shared the more power is created and used for a greater good. It serves all not just a few. Leaders who inspire trust obtain greater productivity and result. Their bottom line is not just dollars –it is an increase in social capital and trust - invaluable outcomes.

Healthy communities with leaders who create trust plan for the future with hope, compassion and caring; and these values infuse their actions. They hold one another in trust. This means they exhibit and cultivate leadership that is respectful of differences and diversity; that listens and learns; leadership that does not exploit the vulnerability inherent in the trust that has been given them. They create the strong ties, shared vision, and shared language that comes from adaptive, ethical, and effective leadership. And it all begins with trust.

[1]An Integrative Model Of Organizational Trust ACAD MANAGE REV July 1, 1995 20:3 709-734