Trust and Leadership


As the November election draws near, there have been many conversations about the trust-worthiness of each presidential candidate. This focus on trust is no surprise—studies show that people elect their leaders based on feelings of trust. And in his book, The Leadership Equation, Eric Douglas (the President and CEO of Leading Resources Inc.) argues that trust is the most important thing that a leader does.

So, why is trust is such a crucial aspect of leadership? To understand how fundamental trust truly is, we have to go back to the beginning. As it turns out, we humans are hardwired to seek situations in which we feel trust, because our brains release high levels of oxytocin when we experience trust. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and gives us positive feelings about the people around us. As a result, we are able to work through our disagreements and not harbor grudges. We cooperate in extraordinary ways.

Every one of our emotions stems from our feelings of trust—or the lack of it. On the positive side, trust gives rise to feelings of generosity, joy, courage, empowerment, self-confidence, tenderness, intimacy, and love. On the negative side, a lack of trust gives rise to feelings of anger, betrayal, jealousy, resentment, and vengefulness—and worse. Why do we feel love? Because we trust someone to look after our interests, and we feel trusted in return. Why do we feel betrayed? Because we perceive someone isn’t keeping up his end of the bargain. Why do we feel jealous? Because someone else is getting the deal we think we deserved to get.

Trust is based on the principle of predictable returns. If I do this for you, I’ll get this in return. The shorthand term is “reciprocity.” In his book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker shows exactly how our brains are wired to respond to actions that build trust. He points out that reciprocity is an evolutionary strategy, hardwired into our genes. If you give me a hand, I’ll return the favor—especially if I think there’s a strong likelihood of repeated transactions with you in the future. Trust hinges on having enough information over time to determine whether reciprocity occurs. Pinker shows that our brains are hardwired to detect whether reciprocity and trust exist—or whether we’re getting the short end of the stick. This “cheater meter” is working in every conscious moment. If I think that you’ve treated me fairly, in ways that I predicted, then my cheater meter is in the green. If not, it swings into the red.

You may not know it, but our cheater meters are working all the time. When we feel trust, our cheater meter fades into the background. Everything feels good (that’s the oxytocin talking). But our cheater meters emerge the moment we experience distrust. Did your boss not include you in a decision that affects you? Did your peer forget to inform you about a meeting with one of your employees? Think about it. You know vividly when you distrust someone. Your cheater meter is a finely tuned instrument—one that you may not have even known existed.

Let’s add another layer of nuance to this trust business: Each of us sets our cheater meter a bit differently. This is particularly evident at the start of a relationship. Some people trust until they have data that convinces them otherwise. Some people distrust until they see evidence that they can trust. And a small percentage are on the margins: they either trust too much or rarely feel trust. Look at the following table and think about where your cheater meter is set.

TRUST STILL TRUST UNTIL DISTRUST UNTIL DISTRUST STILL
I almost always trust people. I trust people until I see evidence that I shouldn’t. I don’t trust people until I see evidence that I should. I rarely trust people.

If you said “trust until,” you join roughly 45 percent of the population who feel that way. Another 45 percent say they “distrust until.” The remaining 10 percent occupy the two extremes, again in roughly even percentages. People have different trust orientations.

Another dimension of trust has to do with expectations. Some people have very high expectations and thus are easily disappointed. Others have low expectations, and don’t feel particularly bothered when their expectations aren’t met.

Consider these elements of trust as you think about how you view the current presidential candidates. In the video below, Eric Douglas further discusses these dynamics of trust in the context of this upcoming election in November.

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