Trust and Trust Building

Roy J. Lewicki
Edward C. Tomlinson

December 2003

Trust- Overview

"Trust is a peculiar resource; it is built rather than depleted by use." -- Unknown

The phenomenon of trust has been extensively explored by a variety of disciplines across the social sciences, including economics, social psychology, and political science. The breadth of this literature offers rich insight, and this is noted in the common elements that appear in the definition of trust.

For example, Rousseau and her colleagues offer the following definition: "Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another."[1] Similarly, Lewicki and his colleagues describe trust as "an individual's belief in, and willingness to act on the basis of, the words, actions, and decisions of another."[2]

Additional insights into trust building are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

The need for trust arises from our interdependence with others. We often depend on other people to help us obtain, or at least not to frustrate, the outcomes we value (and they on us). As our interests with others are intertwined, we also must recognize that there is an element of risk involved insofar as we often encounter situations in which we cannot compel the cooperation we seek. Therefore, trust can be very valuable in social interactions.

Trust has been identified as a key element of successful conflict resolution (including negotiation and mediation). This is not surprising insofar as trust is associated with enhanced cooperation, information sharing, and problem solving.

Origins and Development of Trust

Armed with a definition of trust and a description of the benefits it brings, we now turn to examine its origins and development. Theory on the origins of interpersonal trust has proceeded broadly along three fronts: (1) explaining differences in the individual propensity to trust, (2) understanding dimensions of trustworthy behavior, and (3) suggesting levels of trust development.

Individual propensity to trust

Personality theorists have developed one of the oldest theoretical perspectives on trust, and argued that some people are more likely to trust than others. Viewed as a fairly stable trait over time, trust is regarded as a generalized expectancy that other people can be relied on. This expectancy is a function of the degree to which trust has been honored in that individual's history of prior social interactions, and may have its most pronounced effect in novel or ambiguous situations. While this expectancy shapes perceptions of the character of people in general, more recent work has identified the characteristics of trustees that allow for the formation of trust and its growth to higher levels.

Dimensions of trustworthy behavior

Our trust in another individual can be grounded in our evaluation of his/her ability, integrity, and benevolence. That is, the more we observe these characteristics in another person, our level of trust in that person is likely to grow.

Ability refers to an assessment of the other's knowledge, skill, or competency. This dimension recognizes that trust requires some sense that the other is able to perform in a manner that meets our expectations.

Integrity is the degree to which the trustee adheres to principles that are acceptable to the trustor. This dimension leads to trust based on consistency of past actions, credibility of communication, commitment to standards of fairness, and the congruence of the other's word and deed.

Benevolence is our assessment that the trusted individual is concerned enough about our welfare to either advance our interests, or at least not impede them. The other's perceived intentions or motives of the trustee are most central. Honest and open communication, delegating decisions, and sharing control indicate evidence of one's benevolence.

Although these three dimensions are likely to be linked to each other, they each contribute separately to influence the level of trust in another within a relationship. However, ability and integrity are likely to be most influential early in a relationship, as information on one's benevolence needs more time to emerge. The effect of benevolence will increase as the relationship between the parties grows closer. The next section describes trust development in relationships in more detail.

Levels of trust development

Early theories of trust described it as a unidimensional phenomenon that simply increased or decreased in magnitude and strength within a relationship. However, more recent approaches to trust suggests that trust builds along a continuum of hierarchical and sequential stages, such that as trust grows to 'higher' levels, it becomes stronger and more resilient and changes in character. This is the primary perspective we adopt in the remainder of these essays.

At early stages of a relationship, trust is at a calculus-based level. In other words, an individual will carefully calculate how the other party is likely to behave in a given situation depending on the rewards for being trustworthy and the deterrents against untrustworthy behavior. In this manner, rewards and punishments form the basis of control that a trustor has in ensuring the trustee's behavioral consistency. Individuals deciding to trust the other mentally contemplate the benefits of staying in the relationship with the trustee versus the benefits of 'cheating' on the relationship, and the costs of staying in the relationship versus the costs of breaking the relationship. Trust will only be extended to the other to the extent that this cost-benefit calculation indicates that the continued trust will yield a net positive benefit. Over time, calculus-based trust (CBT) can be built as individuals manage their reputation and assure the stability of their behavior by behaving consistently, meeting agreed-to deadlines, and fulfilling promises. CBT is a largely cognitively-driven trust phenomenon, grounded in judgments of the trustees predictability and reliability.

However, as the parties come to a deeper understanding of each other through repeated interactions, they may become aware of shared values and goals. This allows trust to grow to a higher and qualitatively different level. When trust evolves to the highest level, it is said to function as identification-based trust (IBT). At this stage trust has been built to the point that the parties have internalized each other's desires and intentions. They understand what the other party really cares about so completely that each party is able to act as an agent for the other. Trust at this advanced stage is also enhanced by a strong emotional bond between the parties, based on a sense of shared goals and values. So, in contrast to CBT, IBT is a more emotionally-driven phenomenon, grounded in perceptions of interpersonal care and concern, and mutual need satisfaction.

Violated Expectations

Trust violations occur when the trustor's (i.e., the victim's) confident positive expectations of the trustee (i.e., the offender) are disconfirmed. These violations result in lower subsequent trust, and may reduce the extent to which victims of these violations cooperate with the offender. Research within organizations has shown that trust violations stifle mutual support and information sharing, and even exert negative effects on organizational citizenship behaviors, job performance, turnover, and profits.

The experience of a trust violation is likely to result in the trustor making (1) a cognitive appraisal of the situation and (2) experiencing a distressed emotional state. The cognitive appraisal refers to the victim's assignment of culpability to the offender and the evaluation of the costs associated with the violation. The emotional reaction is likely to be composed of some mixture of anger, disappointment, and/or frustration at oneself for trusting and at the offender for exploiting that trust.

We proceed to consider how violations damage interpersonal trust.

In some cases, a single trust violation may seriously damage or irreparably destroy trust. In other cases, one trust violation may not be that damaging when considered in isolation. Rather, a pattern of violations may be needed to create serious damage to the relationship. In other words, not all trust violations are created equally. So, to analyze the effect of trust violations on a relationship, we need a way to describe how much harm (cognitive and/or emotional) a given violation has created. We will broadly refer to this extent of harm as the Offense Severity, and note that as it increases, it is likely to be met with more active and extreme responses by the trustor (victim), and signal greater harm to interpersonal trust.

For example, minor offenses may be met with simply a reduced level of trust. That is, one may have simply lower trust in another in a given context. The victim will be motivated to avoid transactions with the trustee (offender) in the future, and to withhold further support and cooperation. In situations where the relationship cannot be terminated (e.g., the parties have to continue to interact or work together), the relationship continues as a hollow "shell," a facade of superficial cooperation and/or specific transactions that are tightly controlled. These are relatively passive approaches to low trust management strategies -- i.e., "Okay, you got me. I'm simply not going to trust you any more, even though we have to deal with each other."

As Offense Severity grows, however, the victim is more likely to experience stronger negative cognitive and emotional reactions, including a sense of moral outrage. Serious offenses harm trust severely, often to the point of complete destruction. These serious offenses may also stimulate the rapid growth of distrust. Accordingly, the victim is more likely to engage in more severe reactions to the trust violation, including exacting retribution, escalating the conflict, and/or terminating the relationship.

Offense Severity exists along a continuum from low to high. Offenses can be severe in several ways:

  • Magnitude of the offense. The magnitude of the offense is an indication of the seriousness of consequences incurred by the victim. To illustrate, when a dry cleaner loses an old shirt you were planning to replace soon anyway, this may be viewed as a trivial violation of your trust in the dry cleaner. However, it will be much more than a mere nuisance if that dry cleaner damaged a brand new, expensive suit!
  • Number of prior violations. When there is a clear pattern of prior trust violations, even if they are each relatively minor when viewed in isolation, the overall pattern may be deemed a serious breach. As the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back," it is the pattern of trust violations that provides evidence that the offender is not worthy of future trust. However, when there are few past violations, any given trust violation may be viewed as the exception rather than the rule.
  • Specific dimension of trust that was violated. Violations of integrity and benevolence are likely to be experienced as more severe and damaging than violations that implicate one's ability. Examples may include intentional deception, purposefully reneging on a promise or obligation, and rude, disrespectful treatment.

At this point, we also wish to point out that trust violations that may be very disruptive to Calculus-Based Trust (CBT) relationships may be viewed as trivial nuisances or not violations at all in Identification-Based Trust (IBT) relationships. Because the relationship itself is the basis for IBT, and because such a major emotional investment goes into creating and sustaining it, the parties are relatively more motivated to maintain them. IBT relationships can become rather resilient to trust violations as long as the violations do not challenge the underlying basis of the relationship. However, when the basis of an IBT relationship becomes called into question by a trust violation (e.g., marital infidelity), this has the potential to devastate the entire relationship.

Rebuilding Trust

Despite the assertions of some scholars that broken trust cannot be repaired, we draw on recent research indicating a more optimistic view. However, we caution that rebuilding trust is not as straightforward as building trust in the first place. After trust has been damaged, there are two key considerations for the victim: (1) dealing with the stress the violation imposed on the relationship, and (2) determining if future violations will occur. After a trust violation and the cognitive and affective fallout that ensues, the first critical question is, is the victim willing to reconcile? If the victim believes that the violator will not make efforts at righting the wrongs and minimizing future violations, the victim has no incentive to attempt reconciliation and restore trust.

Let us first clarify the distinction between reconciliation and forgiveness. Reconciliation occurs when both parties exert effort to rebuild a damaged relationship, and strive to settle the issues that led to the disruption of that relationship. Reconciliation is a behavioral manifestation of forgiveness, defined as a deliberate decision by the victim to surrender feelings of resentment and grant amnesty to the offender. However, it is possible to forgive someone (release him or her from responsibility for damage he/she has inflicted) without exhibiting a willingness to reconcile the relationship or trust him or her again in the future. An example may be when a battered woman forgives her abuser (as a means of coping and psychological healing), but does not allow the relationship to continue. Thus, following a trust violation, the trust cannot be rebuilt if the victim is not willing to reconcile. On the other hand, if the victim is willing to reconcile, rebuilding trust in the relationship becomes possible (although not guaranteed). We will now describe this repair process as it relates to CBT and IBT.

Rebuilding CBT

In CBT relationships, expectations of the other party are grounded in a cognitive appraisal of the costs and benefits involved in a given transaction, with minimal emphasis on the emotional investment in the relationship (i.e., emotional concerns are not irrelevant, but just not as central as cognitive concerns). Violations in a CBT relationship involve a focus on the exchange itself and the loss of the specific benefits the victim was relying on from the exchange. In short, in order to repair CBT, parties tend to focus on the impact (i.e., the direct consequences) of the trust violation as the primary issue to address in any repair effort.

Accordingly, it is essential for the offender to take the initiative in stimulating reconciliation, and this is most likely when the offender actually desires to rebuild trust and is skilled at perspective taking (the ability to visualize the world as it appears to someone else). It may be that there were incongruent or unclear expectations between the parties that can be quickly clarified. Alternatively, there may be some explanation or justification that places the unexpected behavior in context such that the event is no longer perceived by the victim as a violation. For example, pushing someone to the ground so a car won't hit him or her would reframe an otherwise hostile act as an act of trustworthiness. Finally, apologies and promises signal remorse and assurance for the future, respectively. These are important forms of communication that help to restore balance in the relationship and convince the victim that it will be safe to trust again in the future.

This repair may involve acts of restitution that compensate the victim for the specific consequences of a violation. Restitution also carries important symbolism in that the offender is actually trying to redeem his/her trustworthiness with concrete actions. In CBT relationships, actions may speak louder than words, so it is imperative for the offender to honor trust in subsequent interactions with tangible offerings designed to restore 'fairness' in the relationship.

Notice that while communication and action are both central elements to reconciliation and trust recovery, the repair process for CBT is dominantly a material, transactional effort. To illustrate, simply giving someone a hug after this type of violation is not likely to help, and may in fact make things worse. Tangible reparation has to occur.

Rebuilding IBT

In contrast, in IBT relationships, trust of the other party is grounded in the shared interests and values of the parties and their collective emotional investment in the relationship. Thus, violations may lead the victim to conclude that the parties are not as 'together' as they once may have appeared. Compared to the exchange of tangible resources in a CBT relationship, IBT relationships are more heavily grounded in intangible resources such as perceptions of mutual attraction, support and caring for each other. Therefore, in contrast to the focus on impact in CBT violations, violations of IBT lead the victim to question the intent (i.e., motives and desires) of the other party that prompted the perceived betrayal. As mentioned earlier, IBT relationships are often resilient to transactional discrepancies that would be sufficient to seriously damage a CBT relationship, as long as the identification with the other party is not called into question. Since an IBT violation threatens the very basis of identification with the other, the victim's reaction to the violation involves the feeling that he/she may no longer really 'know' the offender after all. Feelings of abandonment, estrangement, and alienation may not be uncommon.

For the offender to re-establish perceptions of his/her benevolent intent, the offender should quickly and voluntarily offer a thorough and sincere apology which conveys remorse for harm inflicted, an explanation of the details surrounding the betrayal, and a promise of future cooperation. Further, it is critical for the parties to substantively reaffirm their commitment to each other and to the ideals and values upon which the relationship is built. The offender should explicitly recommit to the relationship, and discuss strategies to avoid similar problems in the future.

As before, both communication and action are essential to the trust rebuilding process, but IBT repair involves an emotional, relational focus. For example, simply paying some form of material compensation may not be sufficient to re-assert shared values and rebuild the common sense of identity that was the foundation of the trust.

Practical Implications for Building Trust

What Individuals Can Do

It should be noted that trust building is a bilateral process that requires mutual commitment and effort, especially when attempting to de-escalate conflict. Nonetheless, there are several ways individuals can act on their own to initiate or encourage the trust building process. This is accomplished by either taking steps to minimize the risk that the other party will act in untrustworthy ways (also see the essay on distrust), or by policing one's own actions to ensure they are perceived as evidence of trustworthiness.

At the CBT level, individuals can take several steps to strengthen another's trust in them, particularly when these steps are performed repeatedly and within several different contexts of the relationship.

  • Perform competently. One should perform one's duties and obligations competently. Individuals should continuously strive to demonstrate proficiency in carrying out their obligations. In some cases, this may entail updating skills and abilities as technology advances. As others contemplate how much to trust you, they will assess your qualifications and ability to perform.
  • Establish consistency and predictability. We can enhance the degree to which others will regard us as trustworthy when we behave in consistent and predictable ways. Every effort should be made to ensure that our words are congruent with our subsequent actions and that we honor pledged commitments. Our integrity is reinforced to the extent that we Do What We Say We Will Do (DWWSWWD).
  • Communicate accurately, openly and transparently. In addition, one should act openly--that is, be clear about the intentions and motives for one's actions. This helps the other party calculate our trustworthiness accurately, because we are willing to act transparently and to be monitored for compliance.
  • Share and delegate control. Trust often needs to be given for it to be returned. There is symbolic value in soliciting input and sharing decision control with others. Likewise, when such control is hoarded and others feel that they are not trusted (such as with monitoring and surveillance systems), they may be more likely to act out against this with behaviors that reinforce a distrustful image.
  • Show concern for others. The trust others have in you will grow when you show sensitivity to their needs, desires, and interests. Acting in a way that respects and protects other people, and refraining from engaging in self-interested pursuits to the detriment of others will also contribute greatly to the trust others place in you. When you violate someone's trust, they deem that you are acting in your own self-interest. Accordingly, their attention will be diverted to their own self-interest and self-protection rather than on conflict resolution.

At the IBT level, prescriptions for trust building entail a number of additional steps.

  • Establish a common name and identity. Nurturing a common identity creates a sense of unity that can further strengthen trust. Engage in talk and actions that build a sense of 'we' rather than 'me'. A common name and shared identity reduces divisiveness and encourages individuals to work together.
  • Capitalize on co-location. As conflicting parties co-locate, their more frequent interaction can help them get to know one another better, strengthen their perceived common identity, and reduce distrust by exposing false stereotypes and prejudices. When used in conjunction with the recommendation above, co-location may demonstrate to the parties that they have more commonalities than differences.
  • Create joint products and goals. Working toward the collective achievement of superordinate goals fosters a feeling of "one-ness" that can bring the parties together in a way that strengthens a salient, shared identity. Parties create and build products, services and activities that define their commonality and uniqueness.
  • Promote shared values and emotional attraction. Individuals should model a concern for other people by getting to know them, engaging in active listening, showing a focus on their interests, recognizing the contributions of others, and demonstrating confidence in other's abilities.

What the Media Can Do

The media can play an important role in the trust building process by using news reporting as a way to increase the value of established, functional trust while simultaneously encouraging the parties not to violate that trust. Journalism aimed at wide audiences encourages parties to place more value on their reputations, as good reputations carry additional benefits, while bad reputations carry heightened costs. The media can also create and report stories, which build trust by featuring common identities, values, and concerns across diverse populations. In some cases, the media can also act as a third party that can facilitate greater openness and transparency. The parties can potentially use this forum to provide evidence of the compliance and trustworthiness of conflicting parties. For example, the media frequently uses consumer advocate reporting to investigate disputes between consumers and service providers. Finally, the media can promote accurate information of the parties in order to dispel inaccurate and negative stereotypes that forestall any trust-building efforts.

What the Educational System Can Do

Educators can assist by using classroom experiences such as dialog groups, problem-solving workshops, simulations and role-plays to practice trust-building at various stages of relationships. Subsequent debriefing sessions can also highlight how students manage their emotional reactions in the trust building process (i.e., making the conversion from suspicion and fear to benevolence and hope). These experiences have the benefit of allowing students to develop their trust building skills in a safe environment that is somewhat detached from more emotionally-charged and less controlled environments where trust may be hard to establish and easy to break.

Practical Implications for Rebuilding Trust

What Individuals Can Do

As we have noted earlier, effective trust repair is often necessary to resolve conflicts. Although this process is difficult, there are steps the offender can take to enhance the likelihood of stimulating the victim's willingness to reconcile, and further the trust rebuilding process. However, we stress that rebuilding trust is a process, not an event. As such, it is likely to consume a lot of time and resources. Containing conflict in the short term may be confined to managing distrust. Nonetheless, we offer several recommendations for rebuilding trust in both CBT and IBT relationships.

For rebuilding CBT, the following steps are suggested:

  • Take immediate action after the violation. Offenders should act quickly to engage in restorative efforts. This communicates sensitivity to the victim and the relationship, and avoids the double-burden the victim has to incur by both suffering the consequences of the violation and having to confront the offender with the consequences of his behavior.
  • Provide an apology, and give a thorough account of what happened. Take responsibility for your actions if you are culpable, and express remorse for the harm that the victim endured because of the violation. Your remorse indicates to the victim that you have also suffered as a result of your actions, and the victim may be less likely to pursue vengeance and escalate the conflict. Also, be sure to carefully explain the circumstances that led to the violation, so the victim can understand the events that led you to your decisions. This will help them see the rationale behind your actions and give them a better sense of the values and parameters that are likely to shape your actions in the future.
  • Be sincere. The victim is closely scrutinizing your motives and intentions, so it is imperative to sincerely strive to repair the harm from the violation. Take action unilaterally and volitionally, and make every effort to show through your words and actions that you genuinely desire to earn the victim's trust again.
  • Be cognizant of the day-to-day history of the relationship. If the overall history of the relationship is good, and there are few if any past trust violations, the prospects for trust repair are more promising than in relationships characterized by many trust violations or few trust-confirming events. Make it a priority to honor trust on a daily basis in order to provide a conducive environment for trust repair should the need arise.
  • Provide restitution/penance. Substantiate your verbal claims with concrete actions that demonstrate a good-faith effort to compensate the victim for the harmful effects of the violation. In CBT relationships, what the victim wants more than your kind words is some tangible aspect of the transaction that he/she was counting on.
  • Restate and renegotiate expectations for the future, and be trustworthy in future interactions. You are likely to be on "probation" for a period, as the victim tests the waters to see if you actually resume trustworthy behavior. Be sure to take this into account, and take proactive steps to manage the expectations of the victim by specifically articulating what standards should be expected. Then commit to following these standards in the future.

In IBT relationships, the following steps should also be followed:

  • Reaffirm commitment to the relationship. Reassert shared goals and interests, as well as the value placed on the relational bond between the parties. Re-establish the affective connection in the relationship by expressing your emotional attachment to the other party, and strive to demonstrate that the relationship is a top priority. You can re-gain credibility as you make clear sacrifices that establish the primacy of the relationship over your own self-interest.

A number of other helpful suggestions may be found in the essay on distrust.

Finally, we also wish to highlight possible obstacles to the trust rebuilding process. One of the most common is that some people are not clearly 'attuned' to other people's reactions, and hence do not understand when their behavior has violated someone else's trust. Thus, some individuals may have limited perspective-taking skills that make them less able to understand the consequences of trust violations they enact. Moreover, these same people may not know how to take the appropriate corrective action in order to begin to rebuild the other's trust. There is also an important psychological role for taking responsibility for one's actions, communicating remorse, and going to special lengths to compensate victims for harm inflicted by the offender. These types of restorative actions may threaten one's ego or self-esteem, and the expected benefits derived from such actions may not be deemed to be worth the expected costs for some individuals.

Another aspect to consider is the legal implications of our guidance. While apologies convey remorse and responsibility that aids in the trust rebuilding process, they also admit culpability that can be legally problematic. If trust rebuilding is the priority, the offender will have critical decisions to make regarding whether and how to apologize. Once again, there may be instances where the costs associated with trust rebuilding are unfortunately outweighed (for better or worse) by other considerations, such as minimizing legal liability.

What the Media Can Do

While the media cannot directly rebuild trust between the parties, they can facilitate dialog and provide documentation of trust-rebuilding efforts. Reparative efforts by offenders may carry additional weight when conducted voluntarily and in a public forum. Knowing the risks to one's reputation by publicizing a complete account may provide additional credence and demonstrate sincerity. Media outlets may best provide this type of public forum.

What the Educational System Can Do

As with trust-building initiatives, the educational system can help parties rebuild trust by promoting workshops and dialog groups that bring the parties together. Safe and structured programs can allow the victims to articulate their interests and expectations, and how these interests and expectations were violated, as well as provide the offender with an environment that can facilitate their efforts at reconciliation and trust repair.

[1] Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., and Camerer, C. (1998). "Not so Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust," in Academy of Management Review, 23, 393-404.

[2] Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., & Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationships and realities. Academy of Management Review, 23, 438-458.

Use the following to cite this article:
Lewicki, Roy J. and Edward C. Tomlinson. "Trust and Trust Building." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: December 2003 <>.