A philosopher's guide to trust and how to earn it

It isn't so simple when you're unclear what trust actually is, says Professor Jonathan Tallant.

by Jonathan Tallant
Last Updated: 14 Oct 2019

It’s widely acknowledged that trust is hugely important for businesses. This seems to hold for companies large and small, and across all sectors. What is less clear, and not well understood, are the basic differences between trust and distrust and how these can be gained or lost.

The philosophy of trust, my area of expertise, can help business owners here. Philosophers aim to reflect back to us, with greater clarity, concepts we deal with every day. These include notions that involve different types of trust, the difference between trust and distrust, and the difference between trust and other related concepts, such as reliance and confidence. 

There are at least two ways that we use the word ‘trust’. For example, I might say ‘I trust your company to deliver on time’. But I mean something rather different to when I say (about an IT server) ‘I trust it to store the data’. This difference between trust and mere reliance is normally taken to turn on some moral considerations. 

It would be quite wrong to suggest that a server has done something morally troubling if it fails to retain my data. It would be reasonable to suggest that a company has done something morally troubling (breaking my trust) in not delivering on time. So, although we may use the same word (‘trust’) in both contexts, there is a difference between cases of trust that invoke a moral notion, and cases of trust that don’t.

A way to capture this difference is to treat trusting a person or company to perform an action as the combination of the belief that they ought to perform that action and relying upon them to do so. Thus, reliance matters to trust, but trust goes further; it’s a matter of relying on another party to do something for moral reasons.

We should also be clear that there is a difference between being trustworthy and being trusted to perform in some particular way. Even in the aftermath of the financial crisis when financial institutions were seen as fundamentally untrustworthy, they were still trusted to carry out mundane, everyday transactions, and maintained their place in everyday life. Whilst we may want to be trustworthy, it’s vital to be trusted.

Last, but by no means least, we need to take care to distinguish trust from confidence. If I trust a business partner to complete a transaction, then there is a sense in which I am taking a risk on them and relying on their behaviour to be appropriately moral. If, however, I have confidence in them to complete the transaction, it’s more tempting to think that I believe them competent to complete the task.  

What all of this means is that building trust (as opposed to reliance, confidence, or any of the other nearby notions) is harder than it may first appear. Any business will have a number of different parties with whom they interact and want to build trust: clients, advisors and staff being the three main groups. Here are three practical tips on how to establish trust:

According to research, one reason that employees will choose to work at an SME is to be trusted to complete work with less oversight than they might be permitted at a larger firm. Communicate clearly the scope and goals of a task, make it clear to staff that they are being trusted to fulfil their responsibilities and then actually trust them to do it. There are lessons and potential actions for large companies from this study.

Clearly communicating a set of governing moral values is important to building trust – and acting in accordance with those values is crucial to the formation of trust. Monzo is a good example. In 2018 there was a security breach associated with Ticketmaster. Monzo responded, and in fact drew the breach to Ticketmaster’s attention. At all times, Monzo came across as striving for transparency and honesty. As a precaution, they replaced a large number of cards, and came out of the situation looking like a company which puts customer interest first. In contrast, Ticketmaster’s reputation was tarnished.

Trust is often domain-specific; a company trusted to perform one function need not be trusted to perform others. I might trust Kellogg’s to make my breakfast cereal, but I probably wouldn’t trust them to invest my money. Frame communications and strategies accordingly. Keep them targeted and focused on core business. Additionally, because trust is primarily an interpersonal attitude it is optimally brought about through interpersonal interaction. If you wish a partner to trust you and your business, there is no substitute for face-time.

Jonathan Tallant is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham

Image credit: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images


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