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The Benefits of Trusting More (with reservations)

November 20, 2012 • Corporate Governance, LEADERSHIP, STRATEGY & MANAGEMENT, Team Managment

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By J. Keith Murnighan

Trust is critical for leaders. Without trust, leadership is impossible. The problem, however, is that trust always entails risk.

“Every stranger is a thief.” This old Japanese proverb presents a particularly pessimistic, risk averse approach to trusting people. It inspires no confidence at all in the trustworthiness of our fellow human beings; it’s as negative as you can get. At the same time, it avoids risks and it reflects what researchers call ‘a rational approach to trust development,’ i.e., don’t trust people at first and only after you have had a series of positive experiences with someone should your trust in them increase. Leaders who live by this model express it directly when they say to their team members, “You must earn my trust.”

Trust is critical for leaders. Without trust, leadership is impossible. The problem, however, is that trust always entails risk. It never feels good to trust someone and then be exploited. When someone violates your trust, the consequences can be sizable, both substantively and emotionally, and the negative impact tends to be much greater than the positive effects that result when people honor your trust. When things go well, it’s great, but when things go badly, it can be really, really bad.

In addition, a bad trusting experience can lead to disproportionate increases in our fears that it will happen again. Because fear is such a strong emotion, it makes negative trusting outcomes particularly memorable and this has a natural dampening impact on our future trusting choices. Think, for instance, of times when someone’s romance has gone bad. It often sours them on any romance for quite some time. This is why people have so much fear when they trust, and why they often choose not to trust when they actually might benefit by doing so.



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