While teaching a class this past week on Building Trust, I found myself giving the participants this admonishment: “Just like anything in life, you’re going to get out of this what you put into it.”
I’m not quite sure where that came from, but I suspect it was the words of advice given to me over the years from my mother, teachers, coaches, and bosses. I imagine you’ve probably received, or given, that same advice before. It’s good advice because it’s true.
When it comes to trust, it’s especially true. You see, trust can’t begin to grow until someone first extends trust. That’s because there’s risk involved. Risk and trust go hand in hand. If there’s no risk involved, then there’s no need to trust. But if you are vulnerable to the actions of another, then trust is required. You have two choices when presented with relationship risk: you can withhold trust in order to protect yourself, or you can extend trust in the hopes it will be reciprocated and both parties will benefit.
Reciprocation is a key factor in the development of trust. There is a social dynamic in relationships known as the Law of Reciprocity. Essentially it means that when someone does something nice to us—give us gifts, show love, extend trust, give grace, grant forgiveness—we have a natural human instinct to respond in kind. Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well. When someone acts cruelly or hostile toward us, we often respond in even more cruel and hostile ways.
In the public square these days, negative reciprocity is the norm. Warring factions have developed a singular membership criterion: you’re either with me or against me. We have demonized those whom we believe to be against us. They are no longer honorable, well-meaning people with different ideas. They are mortal enemies who cannot be trusted at any cost. The result is one group treats the other with contempt and hostility, the other group responds in kind and even turns it up a notch for good measure. Around and round we go in a negative, downward spiral, zero trust loop.
I’m not being Pollyannaish and suggesting you always need to blindly trust everyone; that’s foolishness. You need to assess an individual’s trustworthiness before you extend trust. However, if you find yourself never or rarely willing to extend trust, it’s likely you’re being negatively influenced by some common problems that cause people to withhold trust.
Leaders in all realms of society need to get back to leading with trust. We need to smartly, yet courageously, extend trust to our stakeholders with the positive expectation they will reward our trust by responding in kind. Trust begets trust. The Law of Reciprocity.
You’ve got to give it to get it. That’s the way it works with trust.