Building or Rebuilding Trust

I was sixteen. In a February snowstorm, I totaled the 1963 Pontiac Tempest with the slant four engine and “four on the floor,” black with red bucket seats. that I had influenced my father to buy. “Put your car on the road,” he said, so I registered the ’53 Dodge I had been taking apart and putting back together since I was fourteen, while my father wrestled with the insurance company until he could buy another car.

He finally got a Ford Maverick, quite a step down, but my Dodge was on the road, school was out and I was liberated. I had a “pumpkin license.” In Massachusetts the first year you were licensed to be on the road from 6:00 a.m. to midnight. After midnight, like Cinderella’s carriage, your license turned into a pumpkin.

It was 1:05 a.m.

I have no memory of where I went that night or whom I was with. I do vividly remember my mother on the living room couch in her blue-flowered housecoat as I opened the door.

“Well, Alan, I guess we just can’t trust you anymore.”

Even writing this in my seventies, twenty years after she passed away, I still suck air in through my teeth while my intestines drop to my knees.

Trust is emotional.

We hear a lot these days about voters not trusting politicians or government or institutions. We hear about consumers not trusting companies, or the media, or the information available on the Internet.

But I go back to that air-sucking, gut-dropping moment, the first time when someone said “I don’t trust you.”

What was behind that? I didn’t keep a commitment. I violated a law. Mostly, I worried someone who cared about me because I acted inconsiderately and unpredictably.

Trust is the foundation of the leadership contract. Most people want to follow a leader they can trust. Trust is an emotional bond between leader and follower that allows them to act together, not just to act in concert, but to act as one.

However, as with other emotions, when we try to explain trust we are reduced to aphorisms:

“Trust is like ice, difficult to form, easily shattered, and once broken, even more, difficult to form again.”

“Trust is a bank account,  which after many deposits can forgive the odd withdrawal, but once overdrawn, is closed, to be reopened only with onerous terms.”

These aphorisms provide little instruction about what to do when trust is broken. In fact, the very emotional nature of trust makes it hard to repair a serious trust problem.

Instead, when some person or group says “ I don’t trust you”, we are often left with another emotion, guilt. Trust-guilt is not a pleasant emotion. It may originate in a story like the one I told above, the remembered pain of broken trust. Trust-guilt isn’t very helpful in teaching us how to rebuild trust.

Trust-guilt may come from an incomplete definition of trust.

Trust is underpinned by honesty and integrity, but that’s not all. The opposite of trustworthy behavior is not always lying, stealing, and being an all-around sleaze-bucket. Remember that people say things like, “his intentions are good, but you can’t really rely on him.” They also say things like “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  So intentions do count for something, if. . .

. . . If . . . people know what your intentions are. That means you have to tell them your intentions. Transparency is important.

So is track record. We are back to the trust bank account analogy. If you have made significant deposits, i.e., done what you promised, several times, then you might be forgiven a slip-up every now and then.

When I was at Gemini Consulting I was introduced to the Trust Formula*+ as a way of understanding trust and how to rebuild your trust “credit rating, ”after a significant “withdrawal” or breach of trust.

One assumption of the formula is that trust is mutual; one-sided trust doesn’t last long. Then the formula says trust is a function of:

  • Intimacy – how well do the parties know each other. This can be friendship, but it needn’t be. Most important for trust is knowledge of intentions, judgement, and decision-making. This will lead part way to predictability.
  • Credibility – the other part way to predictability. Credibility may come from credentials, but what degrees you have are a pretty thin veneer of credibility. Mostly credibility comes from demonstrated competence. We ask for references when hiring because we want proof the person can do what he or she says. A leader’s credibility is about a track record in delivering the kind of results he or she promises.
  • Risk – the trust between the parties is dependent on the risk involved in trusting. Because risk is in the denominator of the formula, the greater the risk the harder it is to trust. Prove this to yourself: on your first day at a new job a coworker tells you he forgot his wallet and asks you for five dollars for lunch. You may or may not fund his meal depending on whether you believe he will repay you. Now imagine he were to ask for $50,000 to start a new business.

Gemini Consulting taught the trust formula as a way to build trust with a client or rebuild trust after a breach. They suggested actions based upon an analysis of the situation.

Intimacy actions: If you determine that the other person doesn’t know you well or vice versa, exchange backgrounds, talk about values and decision processes, share a meal.

Credibility actions: If the parties don’t know whether to trust each other:

  • If it is because of a track record of poor information sharing, create a transparent communication process. Always make sure that the information you give is timely, accurate, and framed in a way that it can be easily received and understood.
  • If it is uncertainty about judgement, create transparent decision processes with clear roles and responsibilities. If the trust breach is surprise at a decision – “where-did-that-come-from?” Stop, revisit the decision and criteria and create processes to avoid blindsiding the other party in the future.
  • If the credibility issue is execution, concern that either party will do what they say, create a schedule to verify interim progress and a rule that if any commitment looks like it will be difficult that both parties will discuss contingency plans.

Risk actions: If the risk of trust is great for either party, loss of job or status, financial loss, safety risk, find ways to prevent the risk from happening or mitigate it if it were to occur.

Rebuilding trust is not like building it in the first place. We often say that we grow to trust someone by “getting to know them.”  Rebuilding trust is not just like a reacquaintance, though confronting the problem directly and talking it out will always help. But ultimately the trustees (both parties– trust problems are rarely one-sided) will have to agree to “behave in a way that leads  others to trust them.”

Here are  a few suggestions for practicing behaviors that lead to trust:

  • Listen with respect – as we’ve noted, trust is emotional, attend to the whole person.
  • Empathy and an understanding mind-set – Behaving in the other person’s best interest requires that one ask thoughtful questions and listen with obvious interest,
  • Share your intentions, but don’t imagine that they will ameliorate negative results
  • Accept responsibility – own your actions and your mistakes.
  • Improve – solve problems, right wrongs, prevent and mitigate risks
  • PERSEVERE –  the genuine intention to rebuild trust will go far. In the words of Lao Tzu: 

Trust first; Trust is in the giving.


Alan Culler
Alan Culler
Alan Cay Culler is a writer of stories and songs, his fourth career (aspiring actor, speakers agent, change consultant, storyteller.) He retired after thirty-seven years as a leadership and change consultant. Alan was an executive coach, a leadership team facilitator, trainer, and project manager for innovation and improvement initiatives. Alan’s point of view: "Business is all about people, customers, staff, suppliers, and the community - pay disciplined attention to these people and rewards follow; ignore them and success will not last." Alan is “a seeker of wisdom from unusual places.” He is currently completing three books: Wisdom from Unusual Places, Is Consulting Wisdom an Oxymoron?, and Change Leader? Who me?. Alan earned a BA in Theatre from Centre College, an MBA from the London Business School, and a post-graduate certificate in Organization Development from Columbia University. Alan also builds cigar box guitars and wood sculptures, hikes, travels with his wife Billie, and gets as much grandchildren playtime as he can.

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  1. Alan,

    To say the least thought provoking. We all hear the word ‘trust’ in a positive or negative meaning. You mention empathy, which I believe is a crucial element in any relationship. Building trust is about getting to know one another. There is a subliminal element too. Body language, posture manner of communication.

    Trust is something we can take for granted,from both sides.

    Your descriptions, analysis and more are really splendid.

    Thank you Alan

    • Thank You, Simon
      I appreciate your appreciation and your perspective
      Getting to know someone is always a good start
      Building a track record of reciprocal trustworthy behavior is good too and of course empathy is required to understand personal risk in the situation.
      Thanks for your comment

  2. Thank you so much, Ali. It means a great deal that you read, engage with and comment on my writing.

    I love the We vs. I – a large component of trusting a leader is sharing credit. None of us does anything completely alone.

    I value our conversations and trust that you will continue to share your inspiration with me.
    Thank you, brother.

  3. Fantastic post brother Alan,

    I enjoyed reading the post so much and the story of your mother and what she told you made be believe in what you wrote that trust is emotional.

    I wrote that trust is equal to credibility times reliability divided by I. In your equation I is for Intimacy. In my world I stood for frequecy of using I instead of We.

    Your equation is solid and incorporates intimacy (a passion). The risk of losing trust is vital and I find your equation so apt.

    Well done, brother

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