The Trust Triad

By Brett Beasley

These three qualities can help you thrive and connect—even in a world that’s drowning in distrust.

 
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Distrust is our new default setting. That is the conclusion of the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer Survey. 59% of those surveyed say their tendency is to distrust until they see clear evidence that something is trustworthy.

The root of the problem, the survey shows, lies with our leaders—and attitudes toward business leaders are only slightly more positive than attitudes toward leaders in politics and the media. 67% say journalists and reporters “are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.” 66% say the same thing about their country’s government leaders, while 63% report the same attitude about business leaders.

No individual leader can deliver us from the distrust we are drowning in. Yet, at the same time, every leader has the opportunity to do better and to earn as much trust as possible, despite the overall climate of distrust. And we can learn how to proceed by looking at the examples of past leaders who have navigated distrustful situations of their own.

Fred Rogers and the Trust Triad

"It looks like you just earned the $20 million."

These are words anyone making a pitch or entering a negotiation dreams of hearing. And when Fred Rogers heard these words in 1969, he was noticeably surprised. It was an outcome that seemed impossible just a few minutes before.

Rogers had taken the mic in support of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). For years, the network had hosted his children’s program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” But the Vietnam War was exacting a toll on the nation’s budget, and CPB found itself on the chopping block.

To make matters worse, Senator John Pastore, a self-professed “pretty tough guy,” was leading the hearings. And after several days’ worth of presentations, Pastore was still dead set on cutting the funding for CPB.

"Okay, Rogers, you have the floor," Pastore said with evident impatience. So Rogers set out, carefully and calmly, to earn Pastore’s trust. He didn’t do so with a flashy pitch or polished presentation. (He had prepared a “philosophical statement,” but he decided not to read it.) Instead, he began by offering his trust to Pastore. “One of the first things that a child learns in a healthy family is trust," he said, "And I trust what you have said, that you will read this.”

Rogers did more than announce his trust in Pastore. He also showed the three qualities that researchers most strongly associate with trustworthiness—three qualities we might call the “trust triad.”

Concern

“…It’s very important to me. I care deeply about children…”

“…I’m very much concerned about what’s being delivered to our children in this country, as I know you are…”

Researchers have long claimed that “concern,” “care,” or “benevolence,” is one of the most important qualities we look for in deciding whether to trust someone. They define this quality as “the extent to which the trustor believes the trustee is concerned about the trustor's wellbeing, apart from any self-interested motives.”

In his statement, Rogers said he gave a “meaningful expression of care” to each person who watched his program. He modeled the same quality speaking to Pastore. He showed he wanted to understand and share Pastore’s cares and concerns.

Competence

“...My first program was on WQED 15 years ago. And its budget was $30. ….”

“...I’ve worked in the field of child development now for six years trying to understand the inner needs of children…”

In his article “Why Do People Trust?” Notre Dame Management Professor Jason Colquitt, along with co-author Michael Baer, emphasizes that trust is task-specific. Colquitt and Baer point out that a “skilled auto mechanic might be trusted to replace a transmission, but not to perform a medical procedure.”

Concern, in other words, is not enough. When we’re deciding whom we want to trust, we want someone who cares. But we also want someone who can come through for us when there is a lot at stake. So in order to be trusted, a leader also needs, as Colquitt and Baer put it, “the knowledge, skills and competencies required to perform effectively in some specific domain.”

Consistency

“...I’m constantly concerned about what our children are seeing. And for 15 years I have tried in this country and Canada to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care…”

Colquitt and Baer point out that in addition to looking for benevolence and ability in the people we trust, we also look for a third trait as well. We want someone who has “high word-deed consistency.” In other words, we want someone who doesn’t just talk about their values but also “walks the walk.” At the same time, those values also need to be consistent with our own.

The Benefits of Trusting and Being Trusted

The benefits of being trusted are obvious. Trust enables us to gain the cooperation and commitment we need to unite a team around a shared vision. But Colquitt and his colleagues have also found that there are benefits for the trustor as well. People who trust others at work tend to have higher performance and are more engaged in the work they do. University of Michigan professor David Mayer draws this implication from Colquitt’s work: “​​It may be worth asking some new questions,” he says, “Instead of, ‘How can I improve?’ the better question might be, ‘How can I start seeing more of the good in people, more often?’”

Keep the Flame of Trust Burning

The new developments in our current trust crisis are a cause for concern. And yet, the art of building trust is an ancient one. Long before Rogers’s testimony and even longer before our current distrust epidemic, Aristotle recognized a trust triad very similar to the one researchers have discovered in recent decades. He wrote, "There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator's own character [...] good sense (phronesis), good moral character (arete), and goodwill (eunoia)" (Rhetoric II,II).

It’s a helpful reminder that the trust triad is not a magic recipe. The work of building trust is never done. It is not like flipping a switch. Instead, as Muhammad Yunus said during a recent visit to Notre Dame, it is a matter of keeping “the flame of trust burning.”

Further Reading

Baer, M., & Colquitt, J. A. (2017). “Why do people trust?: Moving toward a more comprehensive consideration of the antecedents of trust” in The Routledge Companion to Trust (pp. 163–182).

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