Establishing Trust in Your Organization: What an Army Colonel Learned on the Ground

Col. O'Grady uses the trust equation to combat a crisis in Afghanistan.


Contributor / Col. John A. O’Grady

Military Fellow, International Security Program
Center for Strategic and International Studies / Government

“Trust” is a word often used in the military, but what does it actually mean? Col. O’Grady broke down the “trust equation” into six parts: honesty, reliability, dependability, competence, communication, and genuine care. In a crisis, knowing these six components can help isolate which ones are key to resolving the situation. In Afghanistan, for example, it helped O’Grady work through an incident involving a provincial governor, in which they repaired relations with the governor’s constituents by considering the multiple elements of trust.


In the organization in which I am in, the word trust gets thrown around a lot. And in that regard I started to find myself getting very frustrated by constantly getting hit with the word trust and then no one really then explaining what that meant.

We decided to unpack trust and really think about what that meant to us as a group, and it did a couple of things. It raised a level of awareness and it provided a common framework from which we could all then understand trust.

So the trust equation is really just that, it’s a word equation. So trust equals integrity or honesty plus reliability or dependability, plus competence, plus communication, plus genuine care.

So in crisis management, the trust principles are a great tool to first analyze what areas of trust have been most affected. And then it allows you to – once you’ve done that – apply individual and organizational energy most effectively at those areas first to start to re-establish trust.

BUMPER: Theory to Practice: Principles of Trust in a Crisis Situation

So there was a pretty critical moment in Afghanistan where the local governor of the province that I was in did not show up at an event that had a lot of work leading up to it to even bring to fruition. Multiple constituencies were attending this event and it was going to be a formal acknowledgement of a deal to bring on local militia. Everybody is there and the governor does not show up. The whole thing pretty much falls apart along with all the work that had gone to bring us to that moment.

In my next meeting with him a week later I said, “Hey look, by not showing up, your integrity…people think you’re a liar now. You weren’t reliable on being where you said you were going to be.” In talking to him about that he was concerned because ultimately his driver went the wrong way and he was in the back of the car not really paying attention. Communications aren’t good and so we had no way to just pick up the phone and be like, “Hey, we’re going to be a half-hour late” type of thing. And so everybody left, he never showed up and that was really the reason, and he was ashamed a little bit because he thought his competence and that of his driver would come into question. And he’s the governor; he’s supposed to know where everything is. What do you mean you don’t know how to get to a town in your province? It’s not that uncommon in that area. It’s not easy.

BUMPER: Establishing Trust Through Honesty and Genuine Care

So we used that to frame that discussion and then what I was able to do to present to him a way forward was bring again into light the kind of equation, and say, well I understand your concern that your competence is called into question, but by not addressing this and just taking it kind of in one area of competence which is really not as big a deal as maybe you think it is, we’re affecting the integrity, genuine care, dependability, reliability. So you have a choice here.

So in that situation with the governor it was also an opportunity for both he and I to use parts of that trust equation as well and demonstrate to each other that we were willing to be honest with each other. He didn’t have to share with me that bit about the competency. You know I could demonstrate to him that, hey, I genuinely care about what’s going on here, man. I genuinely care about how you’re viewed.

We ultimately ended up establishing trust with each other and moving the trust peg in the right way using those different components of the equation.

The net result was then to take this meeting that had completely collapsed and a month or two later re-establish that meeting and bring to fruition the security forces in that area that had a very positive effect in a local…a very localized way. So it was a win, really, in a number of different areas with a number of different constituencies starting with me to him, and then larger [win for] us [and] the populous through the security forces.

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A breach in trust can destroy your work relationships.

Trust Breaches: Timing and Recovery

Contributor / J. Keith Murnighan
J. Keith Murnighan Management Breaches,Reputation Management,Social Psychology,Vulnerability,Reciprocity,Broken Trust We were interested in the long-term development of a relationship. And I’m an old fan of Hollywood movies, in particular, romantic comedies. So, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant and His Girl Friday and a bunch of these movies.

When you watch them, it’s very easy to see that when there’s discord between the two stars early on, romance later is going to be supreme and fantastic.

One of the theories that we had was that if things are bad early, they may have a higher potential later on. Now, there’s an alternative way to think about it, of course — if things are bad early, they just don’t have a chance and they don’t go anywhere.

So, we actually tried to test the two, and we had interactions between people where there was a trust breach early or a trust breach after many cooperative choices.

And it turned out that the early trust breaches were devastating and led to less future cooperation, less trust.

When we saw breaches late, we thought that this might really, really damage things. It does immediately; it’s a shock when somebody breaches trust.

But our guess — and all we have is a guess at this point because we haven’t studied it enough — is that when someone breaches trust, they exhibit strength. And what happens with strength is we do respect it.

And when someone is trustworthy and strong — i.e., someone who’s trustworthy who doesn’t have to be — we tend to trust them more.

BUMPER: Overcoming a Breach in Trust

One of the things that should happen any time trust is broken is you should pursue and try and find out what happened, simply asking questions, because it can be the result of miscommunication, misunderstandings, a variety of things that are simple explanations that have nothing to do with a person’s trustworthiness.

However, if it was intentional, it tells you a lot about the person. And in business situations, what we find when there’s a serious trust breach, trust is gone, when it really comes to the crunch.

You might work with the other person; you might cooperate with them; you might have a beneficial relationship. But if you have to really trust them, it’s unlikely to happen.

BUMPER: Using the Rational Model to Decide Whom to Trust

The rational model suggests what rational people will do to benefit the most themselves. However, we’re not all completely rational, and we actually use very subtle cues and a lot of information to determine whether someone is trustworthy.

So, if you hire a lawyer, hopefully you’ve done some homework and you found out about that lawyer’s reputation, and that allows the trust process to develop more quickly.

Any time you trust someone, you’re vulnerable. You take the first step in whatever it is — sharing a secret, providing some information about a work project, or loaning money or a car. Any time you trust someone, you’re vulnerable.

The question is, how vulnerable do you want to make yourself?

The model tells you to be very cautious. And if you continuously get positive information, trust can continue to grow — again, to a limit.

At some point, things will level off because you don’t want to trust one person too much. It’s the old saying, “Too many eggs in one basket,” for instance.

In business situations, it truly pays to have many people you can trust a moderate to high amount and nobody you have to depend upon too much.

BUMPER: How Much Vulnerability? It Depends

How much do I actually want to loan my best friend? I’d be happy to loan him 5,000 dollars, 10,000 dollars. But when it starts to hurt me, can hurt me badly, do I really want to loan them 100,000 dollars? That would be tough.

In my classes, I often ask people, “Would you loan me 10 dollars?” And if they say yes, I say, “Would you loan me 20? Would you loan me 100?” There’s always a limit.

One time, I did ask someone if they’d loan me 10, and they said, “No.” I said, “How about 5?” They said, “No.” I said, “How about 2?” They said, “No.” I said, “How about 1?” They said, “Maybe.” That was a very cautious person.

Most of us are willing, with people we know, to take some risks. But there’s always a limit.
Trust in healthcare is especially critical when a child's health and well-being is at stake.

Trust and Vulnerability: A Pediatrician's Perspective

Contributor / Kelly Michelson
Kelly Michelson Pediatrics Definitions,Distrust,Government,Healthcare,Institutions and Context,Regulation,Reputation Management,Vulnerability Trust is really about relationships. And it can be relationships between people; it can be relationships between a person and an organization; or it can even be between people and events.

People actually have different definitions for trust, and I think it’s important to think about, what do we mean by trust? Some would call it an “action based on expectations of how others will behave in relation to yourself in the future.”

Another definition of trust that applies well in the healthcare setting is the following: “the optimistic acceptance of a vulnerable situation in which the trustor believes the trustee will care [in the] trustor’s interest.”

There are some parts of that definition worth emphasizing — in particular, this notion of “vulnerability,” that there has to be some sense of vulnerability in a trusting relationship, whether it starts from that place or develops into a vulnerable place.

So, you can imagine having a relationship with someone, and once you’re very trusting of that person, that actually can make you more vulnerable.

More commonly in the healthcare setting, though, we see a patient who because of their illness, has some inherent vulnerability, and that helps to set up a situation where trust can build.

Another important piece of this definition is this concept of motivation — the idea that, in a trusting relationship, one person is doing something caring for another person or something in another person’s best interest.

And finally, embedded within this definition is the notion that trust is a forward-looking concept. While it may be influenced by past events, it really describes how a person or organization behaves moving forward.

BUMPER: Trust and Distrust

In talking about what trust means, we also have to consider what’s meant by “distrust.” And while the jury’s kind of out about a clear definition, I think there’s some important things to talk about.

Some people would talk about distrust as the absence of trust, the lack of familiarity, sort of not having a feeling one way or another.

Another way to look at distrust is that it’s the opposite of trust, that it’s a situation where a person is pessimistic or concerned about another person’s motivations.

And finally, one can think about distrust as a substitute for trust, not necessarily the opposite of trust. So, at some level, you can have distrust and trust at the same time.

For example, maybe I get sent to an emergency room, and I feel confident about the situation because I know it’s a good emergency room. But something happens, and I sort of feel like, “Well, I’m going to hold out and reserve judgment.”

So, you can kind of share a sense of trust and distrust simultaneously — this notion about trusting, but “let me make sure that’s really the case.”

BUMPER: Trust in Individuals and Systems

When we talk about trust in health care, I think it’s important to consider it in relationship to different groups: you can have individuals, and you can have systems.

Even in this individual group, you can identify differences. So, you can have a particular one individual — a doctor or a nurse. Or you can have kind of an institution that’s an individual institution within a larger group — so, maybe one hospital within a whole healthcare system.

And then you can also look at it from a more systems perspective. And even in that context, there are more individuals and then more institutional things.

For example, maybe the group or system of how emergency doctors function or how surgeons tend to function is maybe a more systems approach — or you have how a particular institution (how hospitals work) can also be a more systems-based perspective.

The other thing to keep in mind is that relationships can be personal and they can be impersonal in the healthcare system. So, again, I use the individual doctor with their patient as a very personal relationship.

And even a patient may have a personal relationship with a hospital. You can imagine having a feeling of trust for a particular hospital and, in that way, kind of personalizing that relationship.

You may have someone who doesn’t believe in western medicine. So, even this concept of western versus non-western — this system of western medicine versus non-western medicine — is important for some patients.
The same way you would plug into a network server, developing trust is all about making a connection.

What Human Behavior Teaches Us About Trust: A Social Psychologist’s Perspective

Contributor / J. Keith Murnighan
J. Keith Murnighan Management Breaches,Definitions,Distrust,Government,Reciprocity,Social Psychology,Reputation Management I was trained as a social psychologist. Social psychologists pay attention to normal behavior by normal people in everyday situations and try and figure out why we do funny things the way we do.

My whole approach is about interpersonal interactions. So, I’m looking at small groups, large groups, but people interacting with each other.

Game theory is all about how rational people interact with that. My take — I love game theory because it’s just beautiful, formal, clear theories, with clear assumptions and clear outcomes and clear predictions — it wasn’t designed to be behavioral, and it didn’t include emotional.

So, my research tends to look at, do these beautiful models actually play out behaviorally? Do emotions add to our understanding of what happens and why some of those predictions don’t work?

BUMPER: Fundamental Trust Questions in the Discipline

Our research on trust, folks, is on how trust develops, what happens when there’s a breach. And those, for us, are the two biggest questions because what we’d like to see is people benefit and have efficient, effective interactions.

Game theory is like that as well; you want to maximize your outcomes. And we’d like people to actually maximize what they get in their interactions, and trust has a lot to do with that.

If you can build trust, you can interact more deeply, more effectively, and people get more out of the situation.

Anyway, recently — not that recently, 1995 — a group of three wonderful economists created what we now call the Trust Game. And the Trust Game is a simple situation where two people will interact — they can interact face to face or anonymously.

One person, often referred to as player one — we don’t use the word “trust” in our experiments because we don’t want to cue that — player one gets an endowment, say, of 10 dollars.

They have a choice of how much to send to player two. They can send anything from 0 to all the 10 dollars.

They know that however much they send is going to be tripled on its way to player two. So, if they send the whole 10, player two is going to have 30 dollars, so they’re creating more.

Player two then has a choice to return as much or as little as they want to player one.

So, the question is (this is a great game) — player one trusts; player two reciprocates — what are the factors that lead to player one trusting? What are the factors that lead to player two reciprocating?

And one of the major findings that we have found and others have found as well is that the more player one trusts, the more risks they take, the more player two reciprocates.

So, player twos have this feeling that if player ones have trusted them so much, they’re obligated.

If player one doesn’t trust them much, their obligation goes way down fast. But if they’ve been trusted a lot, obligation feelings come up, and they’re much more likely to send back a high amount.

BUMPER: Looking Forward in the Discipline

Studies of trust have proliferated. And researchers are now trying to slice and dice different kinds of trust: Is distrust the opposite of trust? Or is it something altogether separate on its own?

There’s affective trust, more of a feeling; there’s cognitive trust, where you think it out and calculate.

So, there’s debate about concepts that — for instance, one definition of trust talks about integrity, benevolence and competence.

But when we ask people who do they trust, all three come out pretty high and they overlap in ways. So, are they really separable concepts? I don’t know.

You can have trust in your head; you can have cognitive trust, affective trust, feelings that somebody has integrity.

I am impressed mostly when people behave and act as if they trust someone because, for me, everything’s about behavior. The most important things are about behavior.

Your feelings and your thoughts, yes, take up a lot of people’s time. But I want to see what’s happening in action. And certainly, from a business standpoint, that’s more important.

There are debates in the field, and there will continue to be debates. And people will niggle and nitpick. And let’s just see what people do in important situations, and I think that will be the telling factor and build more understanding.

Other pages in Videos:

Pages in The Trust Project at Northwestern University