The Power of Trust: A Steel Cable

By Bruna Martinuzzi

A strong tie.

© iStockphoto/Skyak

There's a widely-known psychological study, conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960s, which explored delayed gratification in four-year olds. One at a time, children were seated in front of a marshmallow and the researcher told them that they could eat the marshmallow right then, but if they waited for the researcher to return from a brief errand, they would receive a second marshmallow.

Some kids ate the marshmallow within seconds, but others waited up to 20 minutes for the researcher to return. 14 years later, the researchers found that the children who had delayed gratification were more trustworthy, more dependable, more self-reliant and more confident than the children who had not controlled their impulses.

When I recounted this study in a workshop on emotional intelligence, a participant remarked that he wanted to try this experiment with his own child. I cautioned him, however, that there is a very important variable to take into account and that is, does the child trust that there will be a second marshmallow? If previous promises made to the child were broken, the child may not trust that, this time, the adult will keep a promise. Trust is largely an emotional act, based on an anticipation of reliance. It is fragile, and like an egg shell, one slip can shatter it.

Trust pervades nearly every aspect of our daily lives. It is fundamentally important in the healthy functioning of all of our relationships with others. It is even tied to our wealth: in a Scientific American article, Dr. Paul J Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University, discovered that trust is among the strongest known predictors of a country's wealth – nations with low levels tend to be poor. According to Dr. Zak, societies with low levels of trust are poor because the inhabitants undertake too few of the long-term investments that create jobs and raise incomes. Such investments depend on people trusting others to fulfill their contractual obligations.

In seeking to understand what was physically going on in the human brain that instilled trust, he discovered that oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter, increases our propensity to trust others in the absence of threatening signals. We are indeed wired to trust each other, but, as Dr. Zak points out, our life experiences may "retune" the oxytocin to a different "set point", and thus to different levels of trust throughout the course of life. When we are brought up in a safe, nurturing and caring environment, our brains release more oxytocin when someone trusts us – resulting in our reciprocating that trust. By contrast, early experiences of stress, uncertainty and isolation interfere with the development of a trusting disposition and decrease oxytocin levels.

In today's uncertain climate, it is not surprising that study after study shows a decline in the trust that individuals have in business and political leaders, and in institutions. The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2009 found that nearly two out of every three adults surveyed in 20 countries trust corporations less now than they did a year ago. And a 2004 study by Towers Perrin, shows that only 44% of junior employees (those earning less than $50,000 per year) trust their employers to tell them the truth. This is an alarming statistic, especially given how much time, effort and concern are expended in crafting leadership communications to employees.

Even though we are faced with a crisis in trust, and have ample examples of leaders who have eroded their employees', customers' and shareholders' trust, I am a firm believer that the majority of leaders walk the path of trustworthiness. In fact, it can be harrowing for many leaders if they receive feedback that others don't find them trustworthy. But being trustworthy, in someone's eyes, is based on their own perceptions, and may be strongly influenced by the fracture of trust in the world around them. Indeed, people don't automatically trust leaders these days. Trust needs to be earned through diligence, fidelity and applied effort.

If lack of trust is an issue which causes you concern, what can you do to manage perceptions of trust? Here are a few quick tips:

  • Monitor your use of "I" in your communications. Do an audit of your emails, for example, and see how frequently you use "I" as opposed to "we". Peter Drucker said: "The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say 'I.' And that's not because they have trained themselves not to say 'I.' They don't think 'I.' They think 'we‘; they think 'team.' They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don't sidestep it, but 'we‘ gets the credit. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done."
  • View promises you make as an unpaid debt.
  • Keep talking about what matters. 60% of respondents in the Edelman Barometer of Trust said they need to hear a company message three to five times before they believe it. Lewis Carol knew this when he said: "What I tell you three times is true."
  • Your reputation is like a brand. Manage your brand, what you want to be known for, as diligently as Nike or Volvo manage theirs. Brand is trust.
  • Be known as a truth teller in your organization. A leader I coached recently mentioned to me that, before an impending merger, he was troubled by employees asking for information that he couldn't disclose at that time. What do you do in such a situation to preserve the trust you have with your people, while honoring the confidentiality of sensitive information? An honest compromise would be to share what you can (there is usually something we can share) and to add: "This is all I can share right now." This preserves trust, as your people know that you did not lie, and, they understand that even though you have more information, strategic imperatives prevent you from sharing it just then.
  • Earn the trust of your customers by insisting that everyone observes the "five pillars of trust":
    1. Keep your promises.
    2. Be willing to help.
    3. Treat customers as individuals.
    4. Make it easy for customers to do business with you.
    5. Ensure that all physical aspects of your product or service give a favorable impression. (Source: Winning Customers, by 1000 Ventures.)
  • As much as this is hard to do, don't try to lead through email. Get out from beneath your desk periodically, and have "face time" with people. The more time you spend with people, the more the level of trust increases. If you are leading virtual teams, pick up the phone more often.
  • Do you manage your moods or do people experience you as agreeable one day and confrontational the next? Predictability engenders trust.
  • Are the corporate stories you tell consistent or do they vary depending on who you are speaking to? It's so easy to get caught up in the moment and exaggerate claims. Even though your intentions may be harmless, these little slips chip away at trust, because people don't judge us by our intentions.
  • Do you make people feel safe? Fear and trust are mutually exclusive. Most leaders would be shocked to find out that, in many cases, people fear them. As a leader, you have a lot of power: the power to hire, fire, promote and demote; the power to assign or withdraw choice assignments and perks; and the power to give or withhold recognition.

    Against the current backdrop of unemployment and a failing economy, people's fears can be magnified. An empathetic leader senses this and devotes effort and time to make people feel safe. Empathy involves understanding others' anxiety and making a genuine effort to reduce it.

Organizations typically spend considerable energy and effort in team building initiatives, including workshops, retreats, and adventure type experiences. While all of these have their place, if organizations want to increase collaboration and enhance teamwork, they need to start with trust. It's the benchmark of healthy team relationships, it's a very simple process. It's all about individual behaviors. Do individuals behave in a trustworthy manner or not? There is only a pass or fail here.

And what are these behaviors? We all instinctively know them, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what they are. Ask yourself:

  • Do I share information that I know is helpful to others, or do I withhold it?
  • Do I treat everyone with kindness and compassion?
  • Do I try to do good in my dealings with others?
  • Do I follow through on my commitments, even if it is at considerable personal expense?
  • Do I seize opportunities to encourage others?
  • Am I just as happy about others' achievements as I am of my own?
  • Do I consistently strive to deliver great work?
  • Is "candid" a quality people would readily attribute to me?

Trust is power. It's the power to inspire and influence. It's the glue that bonds us to each other, that strengthens relationships and turns threads of connections into steel cables. Like four-year olds trusting that there will be a second marshmallow, can your people trust that your word is your bond?

Leadership is difficult work. As George Washington said, "I can promise nothing but purity of intentions, and, in carrying these into effect, fidelity and diligence."

Copyright © 2009-2014 by Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.Based in British Columbia, Bruna is the President and Founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership and presentation skills training. Bruna is also the author of The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. 

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