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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

How Leaders (Unintentionally) Kill TRUSTWORTHINESS

Leaders don’t mean to kill trustworthiness, but they often do.

How do you react when one of your employees tells you they had tried something without asking for your permission and failed? Do you say, “next time, ask first?” or maybe “don’t do that again,” or even “this will show up in your annual performance review?” When you do that, you force your employees to lower their level of trustworthiness, and here is why.

Trust is reciprocal, but not the way you think it is. It’s not that if you trust me, then I will trust you. That, actually, doesn’t work because trustworthiness and trust are considered separately and are thus asymmetrical. It’s not only that if I behave in a trustworthy way that you will trust me. If you trust me, and show me that you trust me, then I will behave in a trustworthy way.

Can you imagine knowing another person trusts you but feeling that you haven’t earned that trust? Due to cognitive dissonance, you will start behaving in a more trustworthy way to justify the trust placed in you.

The opposite works as well. If you don’t trust me and show me that you don’t trust me, I will behave less trustworthy way. At some point, I will just give up.

There are four possible levels:

  • You don’t trust me, and show me that you don’t. I have no illusions and will behave in an untrustworthy way because there is no point in behaving in a trustworthy way just to be distrusted.

  • You don’t trust me, but you don’t show me that you don’t trust me. I might be under the illusion that you do trust me, and I will behave in a somewhat trustworthy way.

  • You trust me, but you don’t show me that you trust me. I might not know that you trust me, and I might behave at the same level of trustworthiness as if you didn’t.

  • You trust me, and you show me that you trust me. That’s the best possible way to cause me to behave in a trustworthy way, to earn the trust you have in me, and avoid the cognitive dissonance if I don’t.

In one of my surveys, I found that when asked, “what is the most important quality for you in other people?” 61.2% of the respondents chose “trustworthiness.” But I asked about six types of relationships, and trustworthiness was identified as the most important quality only in five of them. When I asked leaders about their employees, the top response was “the willingness to work hard,” with 47.5%. Trustworthiness was the most important quality for leaders in their employees only 39.3% of the time. And if leaders don’t desire their employees’ most important quality to be trustworthiness, it could only mean one thing—they don’t plan on trusting them.

Furthermore, while employees ranked their leaders’ trustworthiness as the most important quality 60% of the time (more than the next four qualities combined), they ranked their leaders’ “willingness to take risk” more than any other relationship (20%, compared to an average of 6.1%). What is it that employees want their leader to take a risk on? On them! The employees!

Undoubtedly, if you want to increase trustworthiness, you must start with trust. But how?

Assume a hypothetical situation in which your employee’s trustworthiness level of 50%. Unfortunately, most leaders will extend less than 50% trust to that employee. As a result, the employee will reduce their trustworthiness (what’s the point in keeping it up if it doesn’t yield trust?). At the same time, the leader, noticing that the employee deserves “some” trust, will start extending a little. Theoretically, the two will meet at a 25% level of trust and trustworthiness. While more than the level of trust the leader extended at the beginning, it is still lower than the trustworthiness the employee started with.

The other extreme is for the leader to extend 100% trust to the employee, regardless of the employee’s trustworthiness. Eventually, those two lines would theoretically meet at about 75%. While the leader realizes that the employee was not 100% trustworthy, the level of employee trustworthiness has increased significantly.

However, the latter is dangerous. Trusting people more than you should can put you or your career in danger. Trusting people means that you give them control over something, hoping for them to minimize the negative consequences of getting that control. If they cannot be trusted with that control, you are in danger.

The solution is to trust people a little more than you think they should be trusted. You start the cycle of helping them increase their trustworthiness by sensing that you trust them more. And when their trustworthiness increases, trust them a little more.

And most importantly—show them that you trust them. Make sure they know it.


Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop that helps build trust in organizations.

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