Components of Trust

Without trust, words spoken with the best intentions come under suspicion; with trust, even carelessly chosen words can be forgiven. Stephen M.R. Covey does a great job of unpacking the nature of trust as a way to understand how to build it.


“In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing, and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they’ll still misinterpret you.” – Stephen M. R. Covey, Speed of Trust, p. 5.


Nothing illustrates this truth more than the recent political atmosphere in the US presidential election. For those supporting Hillary Clinton, no amount of revelations of behind the scenes maneuvering to stack the deck against party rival Bernie Sanders, collusion with media on debate questions, nor accusations of “pay for play” schemes involving donations to the Clinton Foundation would cause her trusting supporters to doubt her message. At the same time, no seemingly outrageous comment by Donald Trump, whether about criminal immigrants and walls or vulgar talk about women, would separate his supporters from him, because they trusted him. But the supporters of Hillary, who did not trust Trump, would take his utterances on any subject as evidence of an ill-intentioned character, the same being true for Trump loyalists who discounted Clinton communications as borne of nefarious motives. The big trust divide between the two political camps completely determined their interpretations of the candidates’ communications.

We perceive communications from others through a filter modified by trust.   Source: By DonkeyHotey (Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump – Caricatures)  via Wikimedia Commons

Without building trust in our relationships, we won’t be able to get beyond those filters, no matter how skilled we are at building logical arguments or how eloquent we are in communicating our ideas. My previous three leadership articles have discussed this bedrock leadership character trait of Trust, particularly in how to build or repair trust. I have found no author better at unpacking the concept of trust than Stephen M. R. Covey and his book The Speed of Trust. In this article, I will highlight and discuss some of his ideas on the nature of trust, and how to build relationship trust through certain behaviors.

Covey identifies trust as a function of both character and competence. Character consists of one’s Integrity and Intent, while Competence is measured by both Capabilities and Results. This distinction between character and competence is similar to acknowledging that leadership is about both who we are and about what we do –the traits and principles of leadership. Who we are is our moral quality—what values we believe; what we do is our behavior—the actions that spring out of our beliefs. Covey makes an astute observation that character is constant, while competence is situational. Our character, consisting of life principles, is built through our own experiences, education, and cultural upbringing and applies to whatever activities we engage in. We may consciously adopt new character traits and seek to develop them, but for the most part character remains stable from one situation to the next. We display a character trait of trustworthiness, for example, whether we are performing a task at a computer at work, or out developing a sale, or dealing with our children. Competence, on the other hand, can change depending on the situation. I may be very competent at computer work, having kept up with the latest software changes, constantly educating myself so as to be technically savvy. But I may not be very competent at selling things. People would trust me to produce something on the computer, but lack trust that I could effectively sell a product.


Illustration based on Stephen M. R. Covey’s Speed of Trust

Covey paints a useful mental picture of the relationship of the components of trust by making a fruit tree analogy. The character component of integrity forms the roots of the tree, hidden underneath the ground but providing the essential solid structure and nurturing upon which the fruits depend. The intent in one’s character is the trunk, which emerges from below the soil (meaning some intents might not be visible) to support one’s capabilities. The capabilities are the branches that fill out the most visible part of the tree, and support the fruits, or results. In the next article, I will review and discuss these components of trust and provide a useful tool for taking your organization’s “Trust Temperature.” Stay Tuned.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

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