It’s a Matter of Trust: Part Three


This is the third installment of a seven part series exploring the concept of trust, including how it pertains to the workplace. Read Part One and Part Two now.

The ‘Bank Account’ of Trust

By Doug Turner

As we have seen, trust is an elusive notion. We know when we have it and we know when we don’t have it, but we are not very sure about what “it” is.1 To help understand this, think of an imaginary bank account that contains all of the trust in a relationship between two people.2

There is only one account and it is the reference for both people when they think of how they feel about the other person. Generally, but not always, each person will perceive the same “balance” in the account; that is, if you asked each person how much they trusted the other, you would generally get similar answers. This is not always true, and it is easy to think of situations where an imbalance in perception can lead to finger-pointing and blaming the other person for failure to succeed in the relationship.

A Shared Account(ability)
Both people are responsible for building up the balance in the account. Every time you, for example, say you’ll meet the other person at an appointed time and place, and you show up on time, you make a “deposit” to the account.3 Similarly, when you say you’ll do something by a certain time, and you do it, you also make a deposit and increase the balance of trust. Repeated and consistent behaviour like this over time gradually adds to the balance and makes a trusting relationship. Consider Warren Buffet and the Wal-Mart deal—clearly there was a large balance of trust in the account between him and the Walton family.

Whenever something happens that is inconsistent, surprising in the negative sense or disappointing, a “withdrawal” is made from the account; it doesn’t matter which person did it, the balance still goes down.4 Getting caught in a lie, showing up late for an appointment, not calling home when you said you would, having someone show you how your actions don’t match your words, gossiping about people who aren’t present: all are things that withdraw trust from the account.

The interesting thing about the transactions in this account is that deposits tend to be small and frequent and withdrawals tend to be large and infrequent.5 Indeed, one withdrawal can wipe out the account altogether if the betrayal is bad enough, and it often is. The relationship may never recover from a single event if the actions so offend a person’s values or beliefs that they no longer want to be associated with the offending person. Infidelity in a marriage, illegal use of money, embezzlement and false statements in negotiations are all examples of potential relationship killers.

Integrating Integrity into the Equation
Before we discuss what can be done to increase the trust balance, it is useful to talk about another vague idea, the idea of integrity and what it means; it generally has a value judgment associated with it. That is, a person who has integrity is “a good person”, but we’ll see that this can be misleading.

Think of a simple arithmetic addition: MIND + MOUTH + HEART + FEET = INTEGRITY

In this little construct, MIND represents what you are thinking. MOUTH represents what you say, how you speak. HEART represents what you are feeling and FEET represents what you do, your actions. If what you think is consistent with what you say, and if what you say is consistent or congruent with what you feel, and if what you feel is the same as what you do (your actions match your feelings), then we say that you are “living in integrity.”

With respect to value judgment mentioned above and the “goodness” of integrity, do you think it is possible for a convicted criminal to have integrity? Clearly there is a strong link between integrity and trust. The head of an illegal gang is trusted by his members. Why? In the rest of this series we shall examine the personal behaviors that contribute to trust.

If we consistently practice these behaviors we shall become more trusting and trustworthy people, with the resulting increase in ability to get things done through other people.

Read Part Four—Accountability Adds Up to Trust—coming soon.

Doug Turner is a leadership and executive coach at True Balance Coaching.

1. Nor do we know exactly how much of it we should have. “Behaviour and attitudes that build trust—friendliness, openness, flexibility, and generosity—do not come naturally to many people, especially where there is already conflict and mistrust between the parties… [T]his is natural because trust entails making oneself vulnerable and hence is dangerous. Natural selection weeds out those who trust too much.” George W. Dent, Jr. Race, Trust, Altruism, and Reciprocity, 39 University of Richmond Law Review 1001, 1010 (2005).
2. See Covey, supra note 8, at 132.
3. Id., at 146-47
4. id., at 165-67
5. Id., at 131-32

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