Trust Is About Risk
At its core, trust is about the uncertainty of what people will do. To be trustworthy is to be predictable. Can you reliably predict what others are going to do? Can others reliably predict what you are going to do?
An honest person is going to be trustworthy because what they say they will do matches what they will do. However, if someone is a reliable liar, then you can still “trust” what they will do, even when their words don’t match their actions. It’s when someone is unpredictable that they become untrustworthy.
When you don’t know whom you are dealing with, you have no way to know how they might behave. Instead of operating under risk, you are operating under ignorance. The best way to overcome this hurdle is to learn more about those you are dealing with. By increasing your knowledge of others, you can increase your ability to predict what they will do.
Deception vs. Transparency
Deceptive behavior uses trust and mistrust as tools (or weapons, depending on your perspective). The goal of deception is to either convince someone of a greater degree of trust than is warranted, or to leverage risk aversion through mistrust. The risk of deception rises when the stakes are high, and when the system encourages deceptive behavior.
Although deception is usually associated with selfish competitive behavior, it can be used for the benefit of someone else, and can sometimes be both a virtue and a vice. For example, Odysseus was a cunning hero for the Greeks in the Odyssey, but a deceptive villain for the Romans in the Aeneid. Regardless for why deception is used, once someone recognizes the deception then doubt is cast upon that deceiver’s future behavior.
Transparency, unlike deception, relies upon trust to build a solid foundation of expected behavior. By revealing the hidden mechanisms of the decision-making process, transparency reduces the unknown and builds predictability by intentionally eschewing deception.
Both deception and transparency are tools. Whether they are a virtue or a vice is independent from the outcomes they produce. The debate about the ethical and moral implications of the means and the ends has a long, illustrious history. But both tools depend upon trust to function, and without trust neither tool would be effective at good decision-making.
Trust is part of your reputation, and building that reputation for being trustworthy takes time and consistency. One of the biggest hurdles comes from the fact that it is often easier to destroy trust than it is to build trust.
Even when individuals are considered untrustworthy, that individual mistrust can be overcome by designing a system that can be trusted. For example, people don’t often trust lawyers or politicians, but we often trust our legal system and political system despite the reputation of those involved (Fisher & Brown, 2009, Ch. 7).
However, systems, themselves, can also become a source of mistrust. When that happens, even when you can trust the individuals involved, the outcomes of the system are suspect.
For example, my cellular network occasionally fails to send/receive text messages. This is a rare occasion, but when it happens it will show text messages as being “sent,” but the text message is not actually delivered. As a result, important text messages have been missed. Before I realized this was happening, it made myself, and others, seem unreliable. It doesn’t happen often, but the rare occasion is enough to make me not trust my cellular network.
Regardless of how you use trust, it is essential to human interaction. Without trust, we would have no way of knowing what others might do. But when you can trust what someone will do, you can make good decisions based on those expectations.
If you’d like to read more on trust, chapter seven of Fisher and Brown’s (2009) Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate provides a fantastic overview of how being reliable (“be wholly trustworthy, but not wholly trusting”) impacts trust in not only a negotiating relationship, but relationships in general.
Fisher, R., & Brown, S. (2009). Getting together: Building relationships as we negotiate [Unabridged audiobook].
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