• Managing people

The Psychology of Managing Trust

Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology at Cranfield School of Management, Dr Richard Kwiatkowski, on the psychology of managing trust.

Monday 02 February 2015


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This long read was first published in Developing Leaders, Issue 18. Sign up for free with IEDP to receive future issues here.

Do you trust me? You are reading this article – but why?

Perhaps you are relying on the brand, maybe the association with all these prestigious business schools is reassuring, or perhaps you are confident that intellectually you will be able to discern any half-truths? Or perhaps you have lost trust? Or have an academic interest in the topic?

What I am illustrating here are the two components of trust; the cognitive and the emotional. Broadly we trust people who we think are competent and have the skills to carry out the activity, and secondly we make a decision about how we feel about them – ‘Can they do it and are they OK?’ might be a shorthand way of putting it. Sometimes you can observe an individual working on a complex task, or have had sufficient interaction with them to begin to understand their character, but increasingly this intensity of contact is impossible, and so we have to use proxies and symbols to decide whom we trust.

Gaining Trust

As a manager or leader it is essential that you are able to utilise both the cognitive and emotional components of trust. If people feel an emotional link with you, if they believe that you care about them, that you are concerned that they will do well in your business, it is likely that their discretionary effort is going to be greater; of course, their judgement is founded on the question ‘Are you competent?’ They cannot know every aspect of your job (did you before you started?) so they rely on signs and symbols; part of your role is to provide these.


A good deal of research indicates that people make judgements very quickly – and often out of conscious awareness. (Chris) Argyris’ famous ladder of inference suggests we move from observing data to drawing conclusions to acting almost instantly. Recent thinking in evolutionary psychology would suggest that there is a reason for this – automatic reactions can be life saving, and deliberate thinking takes both time and resources.

In the social world that we inhabit, one of the ways in which we tend to do this is by implicitly judging how prototypical individuals are; how typical they are is linked to their role in our interaction. If the waiter has dirty fingernails, greasy hair and spits, this is far from the clean, attentive and hygienic person one would expect in this job, we will have lost trust in the forthcoming meal.

Turning to a work context, imagine I am an accountant and my boss is an accountant too. I will feel that I know what to expect but if I find this person is unable to do simple arithmetic, cannot work out net present value, or clearly does not understand a simple ratio, I will rapidly lose trust in them. At that point it will not matter to me how much they care about me or the company, or how nice they are – if the fundamental cognitive aspect of trust is absent, the emotional aspect will override it only with difficulty; some managers imagine it will – that is a delusion. Note that the judgement regarding competence is being made from the point of view of the observer using criteria that they see as important. If we were to hear that Albert Einstein did not know about the speed of light we might be concerned, but some people would be equally worried if he could not budget. So, potentially unfair though it clearly is, how well you fit the prototype in the heads of other people has an impact on perceived credibility and trust.

Who do we Trust?

Collective views of who in our society is seen as trustworthy can be remarkably stable. For example, since 1983, Mori has consistently found that in the UK doctors are viewed as more trustworthy than estate agents. The figure for doctors is usually between 80-90% being ‘trusted to tell the truth’, for estate agents it never gets out of the teens. If you are a trustworthy estate agent your task is likely to be harder than a doctor who comes with a societal understanding that they swear the Hippocratic Oath, always act in the best interests of patients, and know what they are talking about. Once again the competence and feeling aspects are combined.

As well as looking for prototypicality, we tend to trust people who are like us; we are more comfortable, the social cues make sense to us and often have greater salience. At worst this becomes simple prejudice but the good news is that this sort of prejudice declines with increasing openness and international experience. Strangely this extends to the physical; in an almost medieval way, attractive people are seen as more trustworthy than the unattractive. This is obviously absurd but once again understandable; we are using pattern recognition to minimise processing load, and the halo effect, as ever, is present.

"If the fundamental cognitive aspect of trust is absent, the emotional aspect will override it only with difficulty; some managers imagine it will – that is a delusion."

Thinking is hard so we tend to generalise. In opinion polls, people say that they distrust politicians but their local Member of Parliament is actually a good person and works hard. How is this possible? My experience of researching Parliament since 1997 leads me to say that most politicians I interview tell me the truth. I trust what they say. But equally they do not tell the whole truth straight away, they have to get to trust me; it normally takes three or four interviews before they are sufficiently confident that they can reveal themselves. With 24-hour social media, the danger of a chance remark being widely circulated is a constant worry. But really they are just like the rest of us.

We need to have some data about the people we interact with, and so having had some contact with their local MP, or reading about them in the local paper, or hearing about them from friends, people make a judgement. Cognitive dissonance (the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more apparently contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by discordant or new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values) is not involved. So in a new role, do not expect instant trust – people need to know you first, they   can only trust you, not your job title. Don’t expect them to be completely open with someone whom they do not know.

What is Trust?

To trust somebody means to be confident that when you make yourself vulnerable to them they will not damage you. This applies in personal relationships as well as professional ones. If you reveal personal information to a colleague, the principle of reciprocity suggests they may then reveal something about themselves. Now you have made yourselves both vulnerable to each other. This shared bond, assuming the confidence is not broken, can lead to deeper trust, and a strengthening of the informal network. This is a powerful tool for the individual as well as the organization; after all, it is often the informal network that gets things done quickly, or efficiently, or where a bureaucratic approach might be a disaster. For informal networks to be effective, especially if ‘rules’ are being broken or bent for the greater good (and nothing unethical or illegal we must stress), the level of trust within networks needs to be high.

All organizations have these networks. Taking an example from my own research, it may come as a surprise to hear that particular people across different political parties in the British House of Commons do trust each other, outside the set-piece debates in the Chamber. Every politician I have spoken to has friends and confidants in other parties; it is sometimes easier to have a frank discussion with them; but you make yourself doubly vulnerable and have to trust the other person will not reveal anything to their party or to yours, or, heaven forbid, to the media. In difficult times in your organization, who do you have those conversations with?

Building Trust

Assuming that you are seen as competent, and people have a positive emotional experience of you (or have heard of you from trusted others), trust can depend on perceptions of fairness; in other words, equity in social exchange. There is always an implicit psychological contract present – leaders and followers are in a social relationship where both sides benefit. If this contract is broken, the relationship is damaged.

"We tend to trust people who are like us; we are more comfortable, the social cues make sense to us and often have greater salience. At worst this becomes simple prejudice but the good news is that this sort of prejudice declines with increasing openness and international experience."

Once again, it is perception that is critical here; if as a follower you perceive that an unreasonable effort is being demanded, or that the boss does not stand up for your department, or does not provide sufficient direction, or that their rewards are just too big, then equity-based problems arise; simply, equity is about perceived fairness, and acting unfairly is prima facie a breach of trust. An example from the House of Commons is apt here; for politicians, perception is all. A Cabinet Minister ruefully told me, having been unjustifiably mauled in the media: “It’s not what you do that matters, it’s what people think you do.” And actually the same is true in any organization.

Losing and regaining Trust

We are reminded of the Dutch saying ‘Vertrouwen komt te voet en vertrekt te paard’, which roughly translates as ‘Trust arrives on foot but departs on horseback’. Trust is easily lost, and rebuilding trust always takes time, as politicians, bankers, CEOs of energy companies and others have all found. Barely a week passes without a person or an organization losing the confidence and trust of another group, often publically.

At an individual level, and linking back to the cognitive and emotional aspects of trust, people who claimed that they acted due to incompetence or lack of skill (“I didn’t know it was a budget meeting”) or those who make excuses (“it fell into my pocket, officer”) that minimise their involvement in the situation (“it wasn’t my fault”), or that unreasonably shift the ‘locus of control’ to external events (“how could I have known they wanted to stick to the contract?”) will have significant difficulty in regaining trust. You need to do the opposite, and to act authentically, otherwise you compound the problem.

Demonstrating understanding, clarity and openness about what has gone wrong, an expression of genuine regret, and a description (followed by action) of what is going to happen to redress a breach of trust are all essential. But it really will take time to get alongside those people, and that galloping horse again, if you have breached that essential trust. 

Maintaining Trust

As with most aspects of management and leadership, trust has to be both built and rebuilt. Reputation only lasts so long – you have to continue to demonstrate competence and emotional connectedness, integrity and concern, and keep doing so.

At the danger of relying on the quotes of politicians too much, let me leave you with a final one from another Minister: “Yesterday’s bread is soon forgotten.”

I trust that the above was helpful to you ……


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