Most people consider trust as something you have or don’t have. However, it has become apparent to me that trust has various levels, and knowing which level you are at is crucial to the interactions you have with a friend, colleague, subordinate, client or prospect. In John Maxwell’s lesson on trust, he described trust as:

Trust Is An Attitude

Trust is an attitude that allows people to rely on, have confidence in, and feel sure about other people.

In a relationship, people have “free will” and use it to choose whether they will give trust to another person. As in any transaction, the person giving trust does so with the expectation of receiving a mutually desirable outcome. The challenge is that life and most exchanges are not so straightforward.

Trust Is Dependent on Many Factors

Trust is a complicated beast. To give trust, a person must be willing to suffer loss in the cases where things do not go the way they hoped. As a result, trust is dependent on several factors:

  • A person’s past experience with you and/or your organization.
  • Experience with the matter at hand.
  • Someone’s attitudes about trusting others in general.
  • How many factors are controlled by the person/organization being trusted to deliver outcomes?
  • Perceived cost in terms of time, energy, and/or money that an investment of trust may be putting at risk.

As a result of the above factors, trust has different levels. Building upon John Maxwell’s work on this subject, I believe that trust can have the following levels:

  1. Contractual Trust: Trust exists only to the extent that things are explicitly agreed upon. You only trust what people state in formal agreements.
  2. Tentative Trust: People are willing to give each other a chance; they believe that other parties are starting with good intentions. People earn trust by proving themselves. Full judgment is reserved to future behaviors. This “wait-and-see” attitude can be very limiting. Many times, the person “waiting-to-see” is subconsciously looking for things the other party does wrong rather than right. Each person has various expectations of the other but may not have specified them clearly. Failure to meet those expectations leads to a reduction or elimination of trust.
  3. Cooperative Trust: Belief in other people is not easily shaken by occasional mistakes, lapses in judgment, or errors. When such a breach occurs, a misunderstanding or miscommunication is believed to be the cause. When this level of trust pervades a partnership, each member is actively seeking ways to further understand the other and reconcile differences.
  4. Unconditional Trust: This trust exists when people rely on the word of each other without questioning it. Trust is unaffected by individual weaknesses. It exists among people when they are willing to take responsibility for their own actions and their own state, and they fully trust that others will do the same. Unquestioning faith is placed in the values, intentions, actions, and decisions of another.

Know Your Level of Trust

Knowing the trust level is crucial to understanding how to interact with others. I have found that “unconditional” and “cooperative” levels are less common than one would expect. In addition, when cooperative or unconditional trust has been reached, it is common for people to get sloppy with each other. They take the trust for granted and fail to explicitly agree upon things where appropriate. Unknowingly, people act differently from expectations causing the trust level to drop to a “tentative” or “contractual” level.

Situations Where You Lose Trust

I have found that it is best to treat every situation as if contractual trust or no trust exists.  For example, let’s take the position that you get a new client and you are in the “dry cleaning business.”  If you are in a position where you want to have people trust you, you have to remove opportunities to lose trust. Here are some examples where trust can be lost with a client:

  • Clothing is lost.
  • Client does not realize there is a stain on the clothing, and you are not able to remove it. The customer now believes you caused the stain.
  • Client receives clothing that is missing buttons.
  • Client delivers a piece of clothing containing a rip and does not know it is there.
  • Clothing is not cleaned or pressed well.
  • Clothing comes in with all buttons attached and leaves with one missing or ready to fall off.

As you can see there are a number of circumstances where the cleaners may be blamed for something they did not cause and could not or did not fix. A person/organization that uses the “contractual” trust would inspect clothing carefully both when it is brought in and before delivering back to the client. When taking clothing in, they can go over all of the issues with the client upfront so there is complete understanding of what it will take to return the clothing in proper condition. Prior to delivering the clothing, another careful inspection should occur, and any issues should be resolved or brought to the client’s attention prior to the client finds them for themselves.  A person that assumes “unconditional” or “cooperative” trust might not be as diligent in intake and quality control and lose a client forever.

Howard Shore is an executive leadership coach and founder of Activate Group Inc., based in Miami, Florida. His firm works with companies to deliver transformational management and business coaching to executive leadership. To learn more about executive leadership coaching through AGI, please contact Howard at (305) 722-7213 or email him.

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About Howard M. Shore

Howard M. Shore is a Certified Gazelles Coach, Certified Public Accountant Certified Executive Coach, Certified Behavioral Analyst, Certified Values Analyst, and Certified Attributes Index Analyst. He has earned Bachelor and MBA degrees from Florida International University, and completed advanced executive programs at Harvard Law School and the University of Chicago.