Trust is a fragile and complex thing. It’s a dynamic process 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 showed that one important experience – first impressions – play a major role in 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 of working in low-trust environments are fraught with real and potential problems. The implications for organizations are equally critical, given that today’s economic climate demands extraordinary performance to survive and grow. Is optimal performance possible without trust? Surely, even the most talented and dedicated professional requires trust to operate optimally in a work environment. What is so surprising is how many people believe that trust is not a requirement for effective workplace performance. Yet, erosion of employee engagement metrics have been in steady decline for years.
Most business leaders do not equate trust with employee engagement, yet studies show that it is one of the fundamentals necessary to creating positive workplace environments. Certainly it is essential to a range of behaviors associated in workplace relationships. 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.
When we ask many of our clients how they decide to trust, the question is surprising and often difficult to answer. Many people have given the question little or no thought. Yet, when asked WHO people trust among their co-workers, most reply quickly and often definitively. The reasons for trusting others are often surprising. When we begin to articulate our rationale we come to realize how much of our thinking is done outside of our conscious awareness. We also get to see how much of what we do is based on old, often unexamined beliefs that govern our choices.
Understanding our own personal architecture for trusting is basic to how we work – and how we live. Isn’t it time we gave it more consideration?
Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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