The Four Factors of Trustworthiness

‘Trust’ is a word we trip out on a daily basis yet how many of us can define it or understand what influences trust? Thankfully, a host of academic researchers have been grappling with these questions while we have been busy running businesses.

Despite a universal view as to its importance, there is little agreement amongst academic researchers as to the definition of trust. Here are samples of definitions that have been suggested over the years:

‘A judgment of confident reliance on a person, organization or system, when there is an element of risk and uncertainty.’

‘A psychological state that comprises the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.’

‘The reliance by one person, group or firm upon a voluntarily accepted duty on the part of another person, group or firm to recognize and protect the rights and interests of all others engaged in a joint venture or economic exchange.’

You can see that the topic quickly gets complicated. Thankfully, all the definitions do agree on three common characteristics of trust:

  1. it involves taking a risk;
  2. it involves keeping a positive expectation that the other party will not let you down; and
  3. it has rational, emotional and moral components.

I’ve adopted Professor Denise Rousseau’s definition, i.e. that trust is ‘a psychological state in the mind of the person who is doing the trusting’. In other words, based on rational, emotional and moral computations I come to the conclusion that, on balance, I have positive expectations of your future behavior and therefore I am going to take the risk of trusting you.

In performing these subjective computations I will be influenced by four factors. First, I bring my own prejudices to the table; second, I take account of the context; third, I factor in the task under focus; and, finally, I factor in your actual behavior.

Existing prejudices

With regard to our own prejudices, we could all observe identical behaviors in a leader and some of us would decide to trust that person and some of us would not. If my experience of those in authority has been largely positive then I am more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. I will take more risk. If the local bully stole my sweets in the playground at the age of 5, I will err on the side of caution. I will take less risk.


When it comes to the importance of context, I recall working for a project director on a systems implementation project for a Scandinavian conglomerate. The first leg of the implementation took place in the UK where the director lived. With a hard driving, autocratic style, the UK team was pushed and shoved towards the implementation deadline. The UK team trusted this style and the implementation was a success.

The next leg of the implementation was in Denmark and the UK team rolled into town assuming that it would be business as usual. However, after two months of project work, there was a backlash from the local Danish team members and the UK project director was usurped from his role. The local team did not trust the table-thumping style. Their cultural conditioning had taught them to trust a more collegiate style of leadership.

As the management consultant on the project, I recall sitting in Copenhagen airport sharing a drink with a stunned ex-project director who bemoaned, ‘I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. I’ve not done anything different here to that which has worked for me for the past 20 years.’ Exactly.

Task under focus

Then we have the importance of the task under focus. I might trust you to drive me to work safely in your car but I wouldn’t trust you to perform open heart surgery on me. Similarly, a business leader that I trust implicitly in a turnaround situation, where the short-term survival of the organization is at stake, might be the last person I would trust to run a public sector transport operator where safety is a critical operational driver.

We can see that trust is not only subjective; it is also contingent upon the nature of the environment and the nature of the task. The next time someone asks you ‘Do you trust this person?’ you might be best answering, ‘Trust them to do what, when, where and in what context?’.

Your own behavior

Before you throw up your hands in despair and put trust in the file marked ‘too difficult’, I urge you to consider the final, fourth factor that influences trust: your own behavior. The executive leader cannot control whether someone else will trust you but you do have one powerful tool that influences this outcome: your own trustworthiness. The only piece of the trust equation that you can control is your own behavior, your own trustworthiness. The concept of trustworthiness can be defined as a state in which an individual or a firm ‘is worthy of the trust of others’. Trust and trustworthiness are often confused yet the important distinction is that you can choose to be trustworthy but only others can decide whether they trust you.

The goal is to become worthy of the trust of others. This distinction becomes increasingly important in a world where transparency fuels a rampant skepticism. In such an environment, pursuing trust can feel like chasing your own shadow. In contrast, pursuing trustworthiness is like fixing your eyes on a distant lighthouse in the midst of a storm: it provides a reliable reference point. Trustworthiness is the goal of tomorrow’s executive leader. Using Stephen Covey’s language, the beauty of focusing on trustworthiness is that it resides firmly in your sphere of influence, whereas trust remains only in your sphere of concern; let others worry about trust while you focus upon your trustworthiness.


Adapted from The Trusted Executive: Nine Leadership Habits That Inspire Results, Relationships, and Reputation by John Blakey. Published April 2016 by Kogan Page. Copyright 2016 by John Blakey. Reproduced by permission of Kogan Page.