Though most of us strive to be honest, we sometimes fall short of that goal. We find ourselves lying or otherwise behaving deceptively. It turns out that in a given week, over 90 percent of people report telling at least one lie. When lies are discovered, they can damage or destroy people’s trust in each other. Regaining that trust is a challenging process.
What Is Trust?
Trust is our intention to make ourselves vulnerable based upon the belief that others will treat us well. It is a confidence that others will foster positive outcomes for us. When we trust people, we rely on them in important matters. We share our deepest secrets with them. We make ourselves materially vulnerable with them. We place our fates in their hands. Trust is the glue that binds people together. For us to maintain cooperative relationships with each other, we must be able to count on one another.
We trust people when we sense that they are competent, benevolent, and honest. A competent person has the ability to produce good outcomes for us. A benevolent person intends to make good things happen for us. An honest person has the integrity to let us know how they are going to treat us. Having trust in others makes dealing with them more predictable. It lets us know that they will be there for us, and it allows us to efficiently work with them in collaborative ways.
Most people are somewhat trusting by default. When a stranger speaks to us, we typically assume that they are speaking truthfully. However, if a stranger on the street asks for $1000 and promises to return it tomorrow, your trust may rightly be lower. In high-stakes situations, we only trust people if they have proven that they are trustworthy.
People prove that they are trustworthy through their actions. They show us evidence of their honesty and dependability. People incrementally gain our trust by repeatedly demonstrating their honesty and dependability over time.
Trust is particularly fragile. It is a precious commodity that can take years to cultivate but can be squandered in an instant. When someone violates our trust, usually through dishonesty, neglect, or disloyalty, we usually feel upset, hurt, angry, sad, and foolish. We come to distrust that person because they violated our faith and confidence in them.
Oftentimes, when people violate our trust, we withdraw from them if we can. We don’t risk placing ourselves in a vulnerable position with them again. We also become vigilant, looking for any evidence that they might undermine us or let us down again.
If we violate someone’s trust and we want to try to rebuild that relationship, recovering the lost trust can take considerable time and effort. If the violation of trust is severe enough, restoring trust may be impossible. Rebuilding trust comes down to three processes: admission, atonement, and restoration. We must own up to our failings.
Not only do we need to admit where we think we have fallen short, but we also must also understand and accept where the other person believes we have failed them. Apologies, remorse, and contrition are necessities when rebuilding trust, but they may not be enough. We may also need to accept punishments and penance for our failings.
When people feel wronged by trust violations, they may feel that some proportional form of retributive justice is needed to rebalance the relationship. Trust can also be helped by putting in place rules that constrain future trust violations. Perhaps changes can be made that remove the temptations or secrecy that led to the original trust violation.
Finally, actively signaling and promoting a culture and intention toward integrity, trust, and transparency can strengthen trust. Regularly discussing trust, honesty, and integrity with the aggrieved person can reassure them that being a trustworthy person is your central goal. If we do violate someone’s trust, it is often a long journey back to a trusting bond, but the destination is worth it.