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Trust and First Impressions

February 4, 2010

Trust and First Impressions

(Part 1 of Trust Series)

Trust is a fragile and complex thing. It’s made up of our thoughts, beliefs, values, feelings and most important – our actions.

It is often indefinable, highly personal and mostly an unconscious process that governs the why and how of what we do.

Although trust, at all levels, appears to be at an all time low – we still desire it and mostly understand that we need it to achieve success in our professional and personal lives.

It shapes our expectations and drives our feelings and behaviors.

A study, (from the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University) has uncovered one important aspect of the highly idiosyncratic intricacies that contribute to the formation of trust.  The research findings were based on participants playing a computer game (unbeknownst to them – with a computer, not a person) where they were “betrayed” early in the process.

The study asserts that when a person forms a bad first impression of a another person or situation, negative feelings are harder to overcome than if a betrayal happens after some form of positive relationship is established.  

Any surprises here? Well, first we know that body language is a far greater influence on the impact of a communication than words alone. Even if we are not dealing face to face – most communication specialists concur that we are sending non-verbal information in all we do.

It’s also true that trust has a great deal to do with our intuitive responses and the past experiences we bring to an interaction. So – what we feel (intuitively) and what we have experienced (past thinking and feelings) are always mitigating our choices to trust – or not.

If Trust is Not Established Early On – It May Be Lost

What’s revealing about the study is that even when participants playing the game experienced (after the initial breach) 30 more rounds of pure cooperation, it wasn’t enough to gain back their trust.  In fact, players who were betrayed in rounds 10 and 11 (of 30) were on average, 40% more cooperative than those who experienced early betrayals!

The researchers logically conclude that first impressions are mostly lasting ones.

It seems we are much more likely to give people a break once that early, often quick test of trust, has been positively established.

Working in Low-Trust Conditions

Consequently, the implications for our relationships work and beyond, are enormous.

The implications for organizations are equally critical, given that today’s economic climate demands extraordinary performance to survive and grow.

Is extraordinary performance possible without trust?  Surely, even the most talented and dedicated professional requires trust to operate optimally in a work environment.

Recently we’ve been following the tremendous struggles of many people to find and get jobs. Quite frankly, many of their stories are distressing testimonies to how many companies have lost their way in the hiring process.  Terribly long waits, poor or no feedback after interviews, lack of follow-up, double messages on status and in some cases, outright lies and disrespect for prospective employees and new hires are not uncommon.

What possible expectations could these organizations have in terms of loyalty, commitment and trust, given their initial treatment of these employees? Can they really expect that people will give the above and beyond effort that’s needed these days just for the paycheck and benefits?

How long will the fear and gratitude of landing a position in this economy drive exceptional performance?

And if the paycheck is the bottom line, what’s the quality of that commitment?

Will it last when labor and economic conditions stabilize?

Will the employee that was treated so badly in the hiring process simply forgive and forget the organization’s actions and suddenly be more trusting?   While it’s possible that certain factors, for example, liking one’s job or manager, can carry a person through an initially bad experience, the organizational trust factor may never be restored.

The bottom line is – trust is deep. Much deeper than the external conditions we face everyday.  We are just beginning to understand the labyrinth of factors that must be satisfied within a person to build trust.

So – how do first impressions impact your decision to trust?

How does it feel to work in a low-trust environment?


Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants


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