Trust is...

Trust is foundational, specific, built over time, indirect, emergent, transitive, contagious, fragile and complicated. Let’s look at each in turn. 

Foundational: We are social creatures. We wouldn’t make it very far without other humans. Many of our brains have been overtaken by a narrative that life is nasty, brutish and short, and that if only we all pursue our greedy self-interest, an invisible hand will guide the larger economy to an equilibrium. That’s all hogwash. 

Again, we are social creatures, born to learn and cooperate. The invisible hand is a convenient fiction, invented to make an unstable system seem more stable. Trust is the catalyst that enables that cooperation. Without collaboration, the system is inherently unstable.

Specific: For example, I would trust my friend David Reed with my vote on any issue in the realm of telecommunications. He could confidently vote my proxy in that domain. But I have no idea if I could trust him to cook a dinner for 10 people. 

Shift domains and your quanta of trust shift. I know several absent-minded friends you wouldn’t want to trust with small children. 

If you do a brief inventory of your relationships along the axis of trust, you’ll quickly discover surprises, on the upside as well as the down. Some of your friends or colleagues will suddenly pop out as being remarkably trustworthy; others will reveal a pattern that is the opposite.

Built over time: Since a large aspect of trust is predictability, doing things consistently over time is a time-honored way of becoming trustworthy. 

Indirect: “I’m going to make you trust me” isn’t a particularly clever thing to say. It sounds doomed from the start, doesn’t it? Much better that I did various things that demonstrated my trustworthiness, especially if I never mentioned how trustworthy they made me seem. That latter move would be another faux pas. 

Like community and happiness, trust doesn’t thrive when you aim straight at it. You have to take an oblique approach. 

Emergent: Just like you shouldn’t aim right at trust, you also can’t order trust into being. It shows up when conditions are right. It unfolds. Blossoms. Grows. Thrives. And often implodes. 

You can’t take trust for granted.

Transitive: When one of my trusted friends recommends I talk with someone, I set up that conversation right away. When they send me articles they think I should read, I read them. 

Personal recommendations are typically the most powerful path for new things to become familiar things. 

Sometimes personal recommendations fail, as happened to investors convinced that Bernie Madoff had their best interests at heart. Trust’s transitive nature is a primary tool for con artists. 

Contagious: Have you had the experience, on entering a group’s conversation, of realizing that they’re operating at a very deep level of trust? Has this inspired you to say or do things you normally wouldn’t? 

Trust has a resonance you can sometimes feel, outside of normal channels of communication.

Fragile: We’re all aware how easy it is to lose trust, to break the bonds of credibility that let others believe and follow us. It’s frustrating, because there isn’t an amount of money you can pay to create trust with certainty. 

Internal: Trust is about your intentions and beliefs. You can try to wallpaper over these by faking trustworthiness, but the internal work is essential. The truth works its way out. 

That said, there are many companies ready and willing to help your enterprise appear to be authentic and trustworthy, from crisis managers to PR companies, reputation managers and messaging craft shops. 

See Fragile, above.

Complicated: So trust is fragile, indirect, emergent and all sorts of things nobody’s trained us to be good at. Why bother? tktktk

I can screw something up and raise my trust. It all depends on how I deal with the screwup. If I dodge and obfuscate, I reveal myself as even less trustworthy than you thought. But if I admit the problem, share openly how I’m fixing it and make sure it never shows up again, I may end up being more trustworthy than before the problem showed up, when things were hunky-dory. 

In fact, in my more cynical moments I argue that without crises, trust isn’t tested, so on average, trust is likely not as strong as it could be. Unfortunately, prosperity breeds complacency.

To explore that point, imagine for a moment that you lived in the former East Germany, where one citizen in ten was an informant, reporting others’ actions to the Stasi, the state police. At the surface level, East Germany was clearly a broken, low-trust society. But the way most people got by was through the grey or black markets, more specifically through personal, informal networks of care. 

Because the possible punishments for stepping outside the official system include imprisonment or worse, the stakes in these underground networks are very high. Those high stakes pressure-test trust between individuals. They anneal it and strengthen it, to the point where once the high stakes are gone and life is more “normal,” say after the fall of the Iron Curtain, people may become nostalgic for the bygone era, however dysfunctional it may have been. 

This is one reason soldiers miss war.