Trust Needs to be Earned

Jim, a previous boss of mine, once said to me “You don’t trust anybody”. It isn’t true. I do trust people but I don’t give my trust away easily. People have to earn it. And I don’t trust categorically – there is always a limit to my trust. As the programme manager I can’t afford to offer more.

Trust in Catalonia

Catalonia has an interesting cultural tradition, the Human Tower. The guy at the top of a Catalan Human Tower has to trust those below. The expectation is that the supporting guys will (i) hold the weight and (ii) stay steady. If there is doubt then the guy won’t climb up.

Catalan Human Tower

Catalan Human Tower

Trust – A Programme Manager’s Perspective

I feel like the guy climbing to the top of a Catalan Human Tower. As the programme manager I’m responsible for delivery and usually the single wringable neck. If something doesn’t work then it is my fault. So I care a lot about what is going on in my patch and my team’s ability to deliver.

I don’t do the actual work to build the products I’m responsible for. I rely on others. That involves Risk. And that is where trust comes in.

Trust is a peculiar resource; it is built rather than depleted by use — Unknown

Luckily there are people I trust. I listed a few of them on the post on Technical Leads but there are more. Lots more. Generally I let these folk get on with it until they bump into something tricky and then I I go where the risk is. Ironically dealing with issues together builds trust. The people on my team know each other, know each other’s strengths and know how to compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

I’m very much part of that mix. I hope that, over time, my team learns to trust me. That I’ll support them. Forgive mistakes. Intervene when I can help. But this takes time. I have to earn their trust.

I would like to trust everybody but I can’t afford to. There are some people I don’t trust to get the job done. People I don’t know, for example, people new to my team, haven’t earned my trust. They haven’t disappointed, at least not yet, but nor have they provided enough evidence that I can trust them to do the job.

I invest a lot of energy in monitoring via management on the ground and the various meetings that comprise the governance on my programmes. Categorising people as trustworthy, or not, is a key part of this process.

When I’m lucky people will deliver what I need them to and move into the trustworthy camp. If somebody stays untrustworthy – unable to deliver what I need – then I have do something. Options are: support them perhaps by adding more people to help, reduce what I expect from them, change their responsibilities to more match their strengths. If none of that works then I have to reduce risk and get rid of the person; failure is not an option.

Trust – The Academic Perspective

Trust is a the subject of academic investigation and the academics offer a couple of definitions. Trust is:

  • “A psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another” (Rousseau et al, 1998)
  • “An individual’s belief in, and willingness to act on the basis of, the words, actions, and decisions of another” (Lewicki et al, 1998)

Lewicki and Tomlinson (2003) explain how we currently believe the mechanism of trust works. We are more likely to be perceived as trustworthy if we have high ability, integrity, and benevolence. Ability is the our capability to perform to the level expected and is based on the our knowledge, skill, or competency. Integrity is the how much we adhere to acceptable principles and is based on consistency of past actions, credibility of communication, commitment to standards of fairness, and the congruence of the other’s word and deed. Benevolence is how much we care about the other’s welfare – will we advance their interests or impede them. Evidence of benevolence includes honest and open communication, delegating decisions, and sharing control.

Bear in mind this is all in the eyes of the other party – the level of ability they expect, their principles, their perception that we care about them.

Trust evolves over time. At early stages of a relationship people will apply calculus-based trust (CBT). CBT is a largely cognitively-driven trust phenomenon. We only trust the other if a more or less unconscious cost-benefit calculation indicates that the continued trust will yield a net positive benefit. Will we be better of or worse of by trusting the other? Consistent behaviour, meeting agreed-to deadlines, and fulfilling promises improves CBT.

As trust grows it changes in character and becomes stronger and more resilient. Repeated interactions brings deeper understanding and eventually moves the relationship into identification-based trust (IBT). Where CBT is cognitive IBT is an emotionally-driven phenomenon. The parties share goals and values. Both parties have internalized the other’s desires and intentions so much that each can act as an agent for the other.

So despite Jim’s accusation, it seems my attitude to trust and to other people’s level of trustworthiness, is typical.


Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., and Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationships and realities. Academy of Management Review, 23, 438-458.

Lewicki, R. J., and Tomlinson, E. C. (2003, Dec). Trust and Trust Building. Beyond Intractability.

Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., and Camerer, C. (1998). Not so Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust. Academy of Management Review, 23, 393-404.