Gregory C. Dahl*

Human beings are social creatures. They can hardly survive entirely alone, and can accomplish little by themselves. Without human society—the ability to work together in groups, to organize social relationships and to create institutions—there would be no human well-being and prosperity.

Trust is the essential binding force which holds together human society. Just as we perform a myriad of daily tasks trusting in our knowledge of our natural environment, knowing that the ground will be solid under our feet, that there will be air to breathe and that gravity will keep us from flying off into space, so we also trust our social environment and relate to our fellow human beings based on our knowledge of and experience with their moral character and competence. We drive down the road trusting that other drivers will avoid hitting us, we take an elevator trusting that maintenance workers and inspectors will have ensured that it will function properly, we eat food from a store or restaurant trusting that it will not poison us, we put our money in a bank trusting that we can withdraw it when needed, and so forth. Without trust, no human society would be possible.[1]

Trust is essential at all levels of human organization. When families have problems, a major element is often a lack of trust. Similarly, businesses can fail when the public, investors, suppliers and/or employees no longer trust management, and governments can fall when they lose the trust of their constituents.

Trustworthiness is those qualities and behaviors that elicit trust from others and make us worthy of their confidence. We learn how to relate to something or someone based on our experience: whether to be trusting, indifferent, cautious and wary, or outright distrustful. People and companies who behave in a consistently trustworthy manner gain our trust. Usually the process of building trust and confidence is a relatively gradual one, and the trust so gained can be lost immediately if that trust is betrayed.[2] The language we use in English for this, “violation of trust” or “betrayal of trust,” reflects the outrage and loss we feel when a judgment of trust proves to be unwarranted.

Closely related to trust is truthfulness. Human society is based on communication between people. Our ability to trust our fellow humans depends on our ability to trust their communications, which in turn depends on whether they are truthful. Lies rapidly undermine trust.

Another closely related quality or virtue is honesty: acting with integrity and fairness, free of fraud or deception. In other words, truthfulness relates to what we say, whereas honesty relates to what we do and how we behave, as well as simply what we say. Of course, the two are often aspects of the same behaviors.

All these interrelated qualities—trustworthiness, truthfulness, and honesty—are often called virtues and are considered admirable. All religions teach the importance of developing these virtues, and most people recognize them as essential moral qualities. In fact, they may be the most essential moral qualities and the foundation of all human virtues. As it is hard to imagine committing other sins or wrong-doings without lying about it, a commitment to truthfulness can be a powerful disincentive for bad behavior. We are often not even truthful with our own selves, tending to overlook our own shortcomings and failings, which naturally implies that we are unlikely to improve our behavior until we become more honest.

Because human beings can learn and improve, trust is not static and trustworthiness can be encouraged and developed. Children should be taught from an early age that trustworthiness is an essential and commendable quality. Parents should ensure that they deal with their children in a trustworthy fashion, as example is the best teacher. In organizations, trustworthiness should be explicitly valued, promoted and rewarded. And in society, honesty and integrity should likewise be rewarded and valued while dishonesty, deceit and lying should be punished.

People may often behave in a trusting manner towards others even though they know full well that there is a chance the trust is misplaced.[3] This can be based on a calculation of interests and motivation. For example, we may “trust” someone to follow through on a business contract based on a calculation of what we believe to be that person’s likely perceptions of their own best interests. In other words, the character of the other person and our experience with them is not essential for this kind of “trust”, but rather a more general confidence in the social context and the likely rewards and punishments the other party would experience if they do or do not follow through on their commitments. Needless to say, such calculations are not always correct and we take a risk relying on this form of “trust,” but we do this very often.

However, we may also behave in a trusting manner towards others to “give them the benefit of the doubt,” because we feel it is better and more honorable to show trust and be disappointed when it is not warranted, than to show distrust to a person who turns out to be trustworthy. Acting in this way tends to increase trust in society, because acting in a trusting manner tends to encourage trustworthiness in others (just as the priest’s “trust” of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables when he stole his silver is a life-changing event for the former convict and sets him on a righteous path). On the other hand, we may also want to avoid encouraging immoral or criminal behavior, as when we “fall for” a scam or fraud. So, when faced with a situation in which we believe there is a chance the other person is not trustworthy, we may act based on a calculation of the possible loss we may suffer from being trusting, but we may also factor in the moral effect we may have on the other person. This requires a judgment of whether a trusting behavior is more likely to help that person (motivating them to be trustworthy) or harm them (encouraging untrustworthy behavior). Naturally, we are more likely to take the former course with family members, friends, associates, and others in our social circle, extending more “benefit of the doubt,” and the latter course with strangers.

According to one recent study, trustworthiness (acting in such a way as to be worthy of trust) is even more closely related to a person’s motivation towards “unconditional kindness” or goodwill towards others – as opposed to a calculation of self-interest – than is trust (trusting others).[4] In other words, people are more likely to be trustworthy if they simply feel it is the good and right thing to do and it makes them feel better about themselves, even though it may not be in their interests from a monetary point of view. Again, a sense of moral values and character qualities, including a focus on the welfare of others (benevolence or altruism) and not just on one’s own welfare, appears central to the issue of trust and trustworthiness in society. Interestingly, recent studies of happiness have noted that people are also more likely to be happy if their lives are characterized by stable and trusting relationships, fairness, and a fulfilling job, and not by a focus on self-interest and trying to be happy. As Richard Layard puts it, “the greatest happiness comes from absorbing yourself in some goal outside yourself.”[۵]

Given the importance that is widely attached to trust and trustworthiness, it is remarkable that the public in modern countries generally expresses distrust of major social institutions, some to an extreme degree. For example, in the U.S., according to a Harris Polls in early 2008, only 14 percent of respondents expressed “a great deal of confidence” in major companies, 8 percent in Congress, 25 percent in the Supreme Court, 28 percent in medicine and 25 percent in organized religion. Only one institution, the military, enjoyed the confidence of more than half the people (51 percent).[6] These attitudes, therefore, appear to reflect a dramatic shortfall in the behavior of those in positions of authority compared with the public’s expectations. In international polls the findings are similar, although the absolute figures vary.[7]

It might also be argued that as individuals we similarly fall short of our own and other’s expectations, which would explain the decline in the institution of marriage and the rise of many social ills. But this takes us beyond our current subject.

Often distrust arises because of a lack of accurate, unbiased information and open communications. People frequently assume that others have negative motivation, and gossip and backbiting can greatly magnify these fears. Frank, open and respectful communications can dispel some of these fears, and create a social environment where trustworthy behavior is more visible, valued and highly rewarded. Where there is conflict and distrust between people who should be working together (for example, at the same level in an organization), a consultative approach to decision-making can expose the areas of conflict and help people to arrive at a common understanding and mutual agreement, beginning at the level of principles and values and moving up to the specifics of a given issue, problem or objective. Through the process of consultation, organizational cultures and authority structures that need transformation may also be exposed. It may also become apparent that someone is not working for the best interests of the organization, or is not able to work effectively with others, in which case that problem needs to be addressed through reorganization or personnel changes.

Trust in business

Businesses depend for their existence on their relationships with investors, suppliers, customers, society at large (which imposes rules and constraints on business), and internally among managers and employees. In each area, trust is essential. Advanced societies have laws, courts, and contracts to help define business relationships and make them transparent, but the direct effect of these mechanisms on behavior can only be at the margin. Only an extremely small percentage of contracts or disputes can be adjudicated by the justice system, while the overwhelming majority of business transactions are carried on in a framework of agreed principles, values and norms and on the basis of mutual trust, in the same way that police can intercept only a tiny fraction of drivers failing to follow the rules of the road, with traffic flow and safety depending far more on the willingness of all drivers to drive safely.[8] No society could function in any other way. When “law and order” break down in society, i.e., when many people cease to follow agreed principles and norms, and thus cease to trust each other, chaos ensues and normal economic activity stops.

Regarding trust within the firm, among the management and employees, it is interesting to note that in many parts of the world the dominant form of business organization is the family firm, and such firms also continue to play an important role even in countries where broader ownership is the norm. The enduring importance of the family firm is no doubt based on the framework of trust that exists within families and the ability to put aside, at least in the critical and uncertain early years in the life of the firm, the potentially difficult issue of how to divide the profits and assets. Only when family firms gain a certain scale, and/or the founding patriarch or matriarch dies, do concerns such as raising capital and bringing in broader expertise begin to outweigh the advantages in terms of trust that family ties entail.

Regarding trust of a firm on the part of its customers, larger businesses try to capture and protect the trust they have built up in their products among the public – i.e., their reputation – through brands protected by trademarks. Businesses regard the good will represented by brands as extremely valuable, and large businesses will go to great lengths and expense to protect the value of their brands by, for example, issuing recalls when defects are discovered or removing huge quantities of product from store shelves when there is a health or safety concern, even if the actual danger to consumers is insignificantly small.[9] Of course, the concern to protect and enhance the reputation of the firm goes beyond individual trademarked brand names and can be viewed as the “brand” of the firm itself.

The critical role of trust is also reflected in the structure of markets, as is clearly visible in modern, computerized global markets. Given the impersonality of ever-larger markets in today’s world and the central role of trust in all commercial transactions, it is noteworthy that on-line markets such as eBay have incorporated mechanisms to encourage a public sharing of evaluations and experiences and thus create a kind of database on the moral behavior of buyers and sellers that both can use to gauge how much trust and confidence they should have in market participants. Such mechanisms are no doubt an essential counterweight to the impersonality of these vast markets. In fact, Scott McNealy, chairman and chief executive of Sun Microsystems, believes that the new business model (at least for the technology industry) is what he calls “the participation age,” and that “the currency of the participation age is trust. And trust is built through sharing and authenticity.”[۱۰]

Given the importance of trust to the proper functioning of business in modern society, it is remarkable that relatively little attention has been paid by business to this quality. Business leaders and managers are usually selected based on a range of competencies and abilities, but their moral character, including truthfulness, fairness, honesty and therefore trustworthiness, is rarely given an explicit ranking. And surveys show the public consistently displays a low level of trust in business. Scandals involving top business leaders and huge sums of money occur regularly and receive wide publicity. Although people enjoy hearing the juicy details, few are surprised that fraud, deceit, big egos and extremely selfish behavior are regularly revealed in business. Just as nowadays few people expect politicians to actually tell the truth, so the public tends to be cynical about truthfulness in business, at the same time that their behavior as consumers is very much guided by their trust in the reputation of different brands. They still must depend on trust and experience but their trust has often been shaken by the unethical or deceitful behavior of some businesses and business people.

This is not just a gap between ideals and reality, between the laws and norms of society and actual behavior. The laws themselves in supposedly right-minded Western countries often do not require a very high standard of honesty. For example, in many countries it is not illegal for a company to lie to its own auditors, and in most countries the penalties for withholding information from or misleading auditors is not very severe.[11] Since it is auditors who are supposed to give publishable opinions regarding the accounts of businesses, thereby promoting transparency and increasing the trust of investors and the public in the behavior and accountability of these businesses, it is extraordinary that there is no legal requirement for businesses to be strictly honest and forthright with their auditors.

More generally, the materialistic orientation of modern consumer culture has pushed us ever further toward taking advantage of people by manipulating human weaknesses and physical desires in order to market products. It is common, for example, for advertisements for cars, sporting goods, hardware, and other products targeted at male buyers to feature sexy women to attract their attention. We have also grown alarmingly accustomed to products being falsely presented. We hardly notice, when we enter a well-known fast-food chain anywhere in the world, that the enticing pictures of large, juicy burgers on the menus bear little resemblance to the burger you will actually be served, which is about one-third the size and looks, by comparison, as though someone had sat on it. Such exaggeration in presenting a product is considered normal in advertising these days. Likewise, our politicians are surrounded by marketing specialists and are carefully presented to maximize their appeal, like so much fruit in the market (which also usually looks much better than it tastes). Advertisements scream at us with wording such as “only $40 and up”. In the process, language itself has been debased. The misuse of language for selling products or promoting political or other special interests has become so pervasive that it has become difficult for people to speak the truth, as the means for conveying the truth – language – has itself become corrupted.

In this environment, ethical business can enjoy a comparative advantage in the marketplace vis-à-vis all stakeholders—customers, suppliers, investors and financial markets, employees, government, and civil society. In each of these areas, building a reputation for ethical and honest behavior, i.e., building trust, can improve relationships and contribute to profits. Given the level of cynicism, especially with regard to large businesses, such trust can be built only slowly, based on actual behavior as opposed to PR and manipulated appearances. But against a background of low expectations on the part of the public, consistently ethical behavior can distinguish a business and set it apart from the generality of competitors, potentially creating a significant source of value in the medium-term.

Unfortunately, despite introducing new courses on ethics and social responsibility, surveys show that business school students tend to cheat more and have a lower regard for the importance of personal ethics than students in other disciplines. Some argue that this is because business education is less traditionally academic than other disciplines and that the competitive focus for students in business schools on getting a good job pushes them to cut corners.[12] But this argument itself reveals the lack of serious weight given to ethical behavior in the business world for which the business schools are preparing them, and the widespread perception that the way to get ahead is to behave unethically, for example by taking credit for other people’s work and artificially inflating one’s own accomplishments. Certainly the latter effect is readily visible to anyone who reviews the CVs of job applicants.

Another aspect of trust relates to competence. In the business world great emphasis is placed on skills and competence. In the business context especially, relationships of trust depend not only on trustworthiness and honesty, but also on competence. An employer expects an employee to perform certain tasks, and this depends on the employee’s competence as well as willingness and motivation. Likewise, a supplier promises to deliver a good or service, and must have not only the willingness, but also the competence and means to do so. Competence is thus stressed in business-oriented books that discuss trust. However, competence is related to trustworthiness, as trustworthiness involves, among other things, being honest about one’s own abilities and competence. A prospective employee who misrepresents his or her abilities on a CV may truly have an unrealistic view of such abilities, and is thus not “lying” on the CV, but is in fact, and more profoundly, lying to him- or herself, and will fall short in the workplace. The fact that “everyone does it” is an indictment of the general moral standards in society, and in no way lessens the importance of the issue of integrity and honesty.

The accountability and “compliance” systems that are ever more popular in some countries are an effort to counteract the widening spread of distrust of institutions. But these systems may be having little positive effect overall. In fact, the very implementation of such systems can give an illusion of improving transparency and thus distract attention from the very problems it is designed to address. The existence and visibility of such systems also sends a strong signal to the public that dishonesty and corruption are widespread, and thus can actually increase the general level of distrust in institutions. Such systems are also expensive and can distort the behavior of those they attempt to regulate.[13]

Trust in finance

Trust is also the key ingredient of successful financial intermediation. As the U.S. Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, put it, “capital markets rely on trust.”[۱۴] In fact, the word “credit” is derived from the Latin word “credere,” which means to trust or believe. And as Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett has observed in a column aptly entitled “A lack of trust spells crisis in every financial language,” it is lack of trust or faith “that has turned a subprime squall into what is arguably the worst financial crisis in 80 years.”[۱۵]

Alan Greenspan, in testimony before the U.S. Senate in 2002 as Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, commented on “revelations of misleading accounting practices at some prominent businesses” as follows:

…our market system depends critically on trust—trust in the word of our colleagues and trust in the word of those with whom we do business. Falsification and fraud are highly destructive to free-market capitalism and, more broadly, to the underpinnings of our society.[16]

People deposit their money in the bank, or give it to another type of financial institution, expecting to be able to get it back, even though they know it is being lent to someone else and is not just sitting in the vault. Because of the potential instability of this situation and the enormous damage to economies from bank runs and financial crises, “core” financial institutions are regulated in all modern countries and governments stand ready to step in and restore confidence as necessary. However, even when these mechanisms work and bank runs or panics are avoided, the success of any individual financial institution in raising funds depends critically on the level of trust and confidence that depositors, lenders or investors have in the management and prudence of the institution. Many dramas have been playing out recently in financial markets as problems resulting from poor judgment and excessive risk-taking have been revealed in institution after institution, and their access to funding has been abruptly curtailed as a result.

Trust in politics

If trust is essential in business and finance, it is even more central in politics. The public understands that businesses give top priority to making money, and that they need to be constrained by “rules of the game” that need to be set for the most part externally by governments. It falls to governments, therefore, to express the will of the people in creating and enforcing the legal and regulatory framework for business. If governments are dishonest in performing this function, or if they can be bought, they have failed to perform their central role. As Martin Wolf, columnist and chief economics editor of the Financial Times, has succinctly put it, business and government have two very different but complementary roles: “…business people … know they are entitled to sell their wares to the highest bidder, but not to use force, and judges and soldiers … know that they are not allowed to sell their wares to the highest bidder, but are entitled to use force.”[۱۷]

Actually, as noted above, force can only be applied to a few who step out of line, while government depends mostly on social consensus and persuasion. Great political leaders have recognized the importance of moral leadership in politics. As Maurice Saatchi, writing in the Financial Times, has observed:

But if politics is not like business, what is it like? The record shows that the jury of public opinion is like the jury in a court of law: motive is all. The jury seeks motive and intent. It wants to see a motive and for it to be something “good” in the moral sense.
The proof comes from the masters of politics. When J.F. Kennedy was asked, as a presidential candidate, how he intended to defeat communism, he said it would take “more than air power, or financial power or even manpower”. It would take “brain power” that he defined as: “The mastery of the inside of men’s minds. So that people could see the splendour of our ideals.”++++++++++
President Ronald Reagan, who actually did defeat communism, told Americans they could only win if they: “Never allowed themselves to be placed in a position of moral inferiority.”
Napoleon described the difference between victory and defeat as: “Three parts moral. One part physical.”[۱۸]

It is all the more striking, then, that governments generally have fallen farther short of the public’s expectations than have other institutions.

Many commentators on economic development have noted that the longer-term economic growth of nations is closely related to the existence of strong institutions and the rule of law. Long-term growth requires investment, and people are much more likely to make productive long-term investments (those which yield returns over the long-term) if there is a framework of justice, enforcement of property rights and contracts, and general security that gives them some assurance of being able to enjoy the returns to their investment. These institutional arrangements, and the social values they reflect, increase the level of trust among investors. In the growth record of nations we see clearly, then, that trust, along with the social institutions that both reflect and nurture trust, are critically important in ensuring successful economic performance and the improvement of human welfare over generations.[19] If the level of trust in social institutions is low in countries with relatively good long-term growth performance, it must be even lower in countries that have poorer growth performance. And, conversely, if institutions could become more trustworthy, economic performance would improve even in the currently relatively well-performing countries.

We may also link the concept of trust with the amazing transformation in the last 60 years of the entire landscape of power relationships and governance in the world – a transformation that is still on-going. Political power has been shifting from a base of force and fear (Mao famously said that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”) to a base of the power of ideas and the will of the people.[20] This is partly because the ages-old development of the technologies of war and domination, which had been the major script for the history of political power, conquest and governance, came to a sudden turning point with the discovery of the atomic bomb and its first use in 1945. As we gradually came to understand in the following decades, atomic weapons became so powerfully destructive that they couldn’t actually be used by any rational leader or government. Thus, there was no further technological advance in warfare that could ensure the dominance of those in possession of it, as had always been the case in the past. And the military power of the “great powers” became suddenly much less effective. At the same time, as Gandhi so effectively demonstrated, the seemingly invincible power of the great empires of the time had hypocrisy at its core, and this central weakness would cause all the guns and armies to give way in the face of a public united by an idea and a vision. In other words, the public trusted Gandhi (and other leaders who copied his approach in country after country) and not the British colonialists, and he was thus able to galvanize them to overcome the greatest force on the face of the earth at that time. Trust and the power of vision and ideas won the day.

Trust in global markets

Alongside trust in government, a similarly broad question is whether free markets can be trusted. Do they reliably provide essential goods and services? For several decades the conventional wisdom has been that free markets are the most efficient (low cost) and reliable way of organizing the distribution of goods and services, and this conviction has been a driving force in the freeing or “liberalization” of markets and the onward march of globalization. Recently, however, the prices of essential basic commodities, most visibly of fuel and food, have risen dramatically and become highly volatile. Because the prices of these commodities, and especially food, are highly sensitive politically in many countries, there has been a sharp political reaction. A number of food exporting countries have felt obliged to ban or limit exports in order to protect supply for domestic consumers, and these actions have in turn exacerbated the spikes and swings in global prices. Many countries are attempting to secure supplies through bilateral agreements with other countries or new approaches such as buying agricultural land in other countries. In other words, there is now a widespread perception that unregulated global markets cannot be trusted to deliver essential commodities, and this perception will no doubt lead to many distortions and inefficiencies in those markets and to higher costs overall. In fact, trust is central to the operation of markets – an observation that goes back to Adam Smith [21] – and if such trust is now being eroded, the very foundations of Western “liberal” economic systems are called into question.


Given the fundamental importance of trust in human society, it is astonishing that deception, duplicity, misrepresentation and outright lying have become so common in the modern world that we hardly notice them, and such behavior has become widely accepted. For example, no one expects politicians or lawyers to speak the straight truth. A 1997 Hollywood movie, “Liar, Liar”, was based on the theme that a lawyer wakes up one day speaking only the truth, with many repercussions. It was a comedy, of course.

In fact, in many professions lying is extremely common and is widely accepted. Often people, if they think about this at all, justify their behavior as being in someone’s best interests. And it is true that there are cases where some greater moral imperative might override the need to tell the truth. But such cases are rare, and a careful examination of the more usual cases reveals that there is no moral justification for lying, as demonstrated in Sissela Bok’s classic work on the subject.[22]

The Psychology of Trust

So far we have examined trust, trustworthiness and honesty from a social perspective. But what about the individual’s perspective? A number of psychologists have written on this theme and have made useful observations. For example, Rollo May, writing in 1972, explored the importance of “power” from a psychological point of view in his Power and Innocence. He defined “power” as “the ability to cause or prevent change. …In psychology, power means the ability to affect, to influence, and to change other persons.” This type of power depends on “status, authority, and prestige” as well as one’s “sense of significance,” which refers to “a person’s conviction that he counts for something, that he has an effect on others, and that he can get recognition from his fellow.”[۲۳] Such “power,” May believed, is necessary in order for people to be able to be frank and honest with others. He felt that violence often results when people have insufficient psychological “power,” i.e., self-esteem, to be able to communicate in other ways.

While it is undoubtedly true that people with social status and authority find it easier to speak the truth directly to others, we should note that this does not imply that shy or powerless people should lie. A shy or humble person can also be trustworthy. If possible in the particular circumstances, he can courteously speak the truth, knowing that he has moral right on his side, and in doing so can increase his sense of self-worth and confidence and develop greater courage. If this is not possible, he can simply avoid lying, for example by not speaking out when to do so he might be tempted to avoid a confrontation by lying.

Dr. Henry Cloud, another psychologist, in his book Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality, emphasizes the importance of character as a key ingredient of long-term success in business or organizations. He notes that success in organizations depends not only on a narrow definition of being trustworthy (i.e., not lying or stealing), but on an ability to work with others and inspire their trust and confidence. He defines character as the qualities needed to meet “demands encountered in the real world,” going beyond a “moral and ethical structure,” essential as it is, to other qualities that he includes in “integrity” such as good judgment and the ability to carry things through to a conclusion. Integrity means all the parts working together well and making a functioning whole. He identifies six aspects of character that he further discusses, including “the ability to be oriented toward the truth.”[۲۴] Seeing the true situation clearly also helps one to identify trustworthy people and build trusting relationships with them, while building an environment of trusting relationships helps one feel more secure and more able to see reality.[25]

How to become more trustworthy and build trust

Once having accepted the central importance of trust and trustworthiness, the next question is how to build trust and develop the quality of trustworthiness. Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores, in their book Building Trust, have addressed this question and shared some useful wisdom. They emphasize that trust is dynamic, based on words, actions and other behavior. We must first understand what trust is, and then work hard to be trustworthy and build trust.

Stephen M.R. Covey, in his The Speed of Trust, addresses in more detail the challenges of building trust within businesses. He enumerates thirteen behaviors that can be encouraged in a business enterprise in order to build trust, including straight talking, demonstrating respect, creating transparency, righting wrongs, showing loyalty, delivering results, confronting reality, clarifying expectations, etc. Many of these behaviors are also part of standard advice for improving management skills.

As mentioned above, employing consultation can also be an effective way of clarifying issues, reaching consensus, and in the process building trusting relationships both in institutions and in family and social settings.

All of these approaches based on desirable behaviors are useful. But, unfortunately, many people seeking an easy way forward focus only on behaviors, and miss the central importance of moral character and the personal quality of trustworthiness, which depends on motivation. Stephen M.R. Covey quite rightly discusses the importance of integrity and intent before his discussion of behaviors. If a person’s motivation is to get ahead, if necessary at the expense of others, then that person may work on giving an appearance of trustworthiness, rather than on actually being trustworthy. Such an approach may succeed for a while, but eventually the person’s behavior will expose their actual motivation and character. In contrast, a person whose motives are to help others and be of service will naturally reflect those motives in behavior, and people will come to trust such a person. People who are mature and feel secure psychologically are more likely to view their role in society and in organizations as one of mentoring and helping others, rather than the insecurity that comes from viewing oneself as “on top of the heap” or “king of the mountain” and thus open to being pushed off by someone stronger or more capable.

Undoubtedly trustworthiness must have its foundations deep within the individual. A person who is not honest with themselves can hardly be expected to be honest with everyone else. If one pretends to be something that one is not, and is afraid to face one’s own weaknesses, one will not be straightforward with others either. But to properly understand one’s self requires honest introspection, for which some humility as well as fairness of judgment are necessary. Modern society, with its pressures towards success and its emphasis on me-first, often pushes us in a different direction, urging us to downplay our weaknesses and inflate our egos. Ultimately, whether a person can hold to his principles and be honest and trustworthy even in the most testing situations depends on whether he believes in God and is guided by how he will be judged when passing to the next world. This is the ultimate foundation of moral and ethical behavior.

The struggle to be trustworthy, whether for an individual or an organization, is at the heart of the moral and ethical struggles of our time. It often requires that we break with accepted norms and ways of doing things, rise above the daily pressures of a society lacking in clear moral values, and fix our sights firmly on higher standards of behavior. Difficult as this may be, the rewards, both in terms of outward success and inner satisfaction, can be enormous.

Suggested reading

Economics, management and organizational theory

Cloud, Henry. Integrity: the courage to meet the demands of reality. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Covey, Stephen M.R. The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Fukuyama, Francis. Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. New York: Free Press, 1995.

O’Neill, Onora, “Called to Account”, Reith lecture No. 3, Also published in Onora O’Neill, A Question of Trust (Cambridge University Press, June 2002).

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The well-being of nations: The role of human and social capital. Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001. Executive summary:

Scholefield, Mark, “A Guide to Trust”, ۲۰۰۴٫ (GBP 15).

Solomon, Robert. C., & Flores, Fernando. Building trust: in business, politics, relationships and life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

World Economic Forum. Annual Meeting 2003: Building trust, global agenda monitor. Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2003.

Moral philosophy

Bok, Sissela. Lying – Moral choice in public and private life (2nd ed.). New York: Vintage Books, 1999.


May, Rollo. Power and innocence: A search for the sources of violence. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 1972; 1998 pbk ed.

* Copyright © ۲۰۰۸ Gregory C. Dahl
I am greatly indebted to Sitarih Ala’i for her detailed comments and for sharing her extensive bibliography on this subject, to George Starcher for constant encouragement and for pointing me towards a number of useful sources, and to Adam Ludwin for additional sources.

[۱] Francis Fukuyama has developed this theme at length in his book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. He argues that a common cultural perception of good and evil and an ability to form social organizations—what he and other writers call “social capital”—are essential ingredients for the successful development of a prosperous society and important underpinnings of “liberal democracy”.
[۲] Stephen R. Covey refers to this process in terms of an “Emotional Bank Account”. See The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1992, p. 188.
[۳] Nava Ashraf, Iris Bohnet and Nikita Piankov, “Decomposing Trust and Trustworthiness,” Experimental Economics 9, no. 3 (September 2006).
[۴] Ibid.
[۵] Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, (New York: Penguin, 2005), Ch. 5. The quotation is from p. 74.
[۶] The Harris Poll #22, February 28, 2008.… These polls have been taken since 1966, and in that year the corresponding figures were 55 percent for major companies, 42 percent for the Congress, 50 percent for the Supreme Court, 73 percent for medicine, 41 percent for organized religion, and 61 percent for the military. There has thus been a very large decline over the years.
[۷] Edelman conducted a survey published in early 2007 and covering 18 countries, in which they found that “business is more trusted than government or media in every region of the globe,” but even business was only trusted by 53 percent of respondents in the U.S. and 34 percent in France, Germany and the U.K. See See also their 2006 Annual Trust Barometer at
[۸] Much the same point was made by Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, in testimony before the U.S. Senate in 2002: “Although business transactions are governed by laws and contracts, if even a modest fraction of those transactions had to be adjudicated, our courts would be swamped into immobility.” See his testimony before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, July 16, 2002.
[۹] Michael Pirson and Deepak Malhotra, “Unconventional Insights for Managing Stakeholder Trust,” Harvard Business School working paper 08-057, January 1, 2008.
[۱۰] Scott McNealy, “Share the ‘crown jewels’ and create markets,” Financial Times, February 15, 2006.
[۱۱] Barney Jopson, “Deloitte – lying to auditors should be a crime,” Financial Times, June 21, 2006, p. 22. He writes: “William Parrett, global chief executive of Deloitte, has called for lying to auditors to be made a criminal offense worldwide, a move he believes could help deter fraud and false accounting… The US and UK are among only a handful of countries that have already introduced a crime, lower-level than outright fraud, of withholding information from auditors or deliberately misleading them.”
[۱۲] Philip Delves Broughton, “MBA students swap integrity for plagiarism,” Financial Times, May 19, 2008.
[۱۳] Onora O’Neill, “Called to Account,” Reith lecture No. 3. Also published in Onora O’Neill, A Question of Trust, (Cambridge University Press, June 2002).
[۱۴] Henry Paulson, “The key test of accurate financial reporting is trust,” Financial Times, May 16, 2007.
[۱۵] Gillian Tett, “A lack of trust spells crisis in every financial language,” Financial Times, March 18, 2008.
[۱۶] Op cit
[۱۷] Martin Wolf, Why Globalization Works, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 32.
[۱۸] Maurice Saatchi, “Business and politics are worlds apart,” Financial Times, March 25, 2008.
[۱۹] See, for example, Wolf, pp. 25-26. Also Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, The well-being of nations: The role of human and social capital, (Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2001).
[۲۰] Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2003); and David R. Hawkins, Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior, Revised ed., (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2002).
[۲۱] Ashraf, Nava, Colin F. Camerer and George Loewenstin, “Adam Smith, Behavioural Economist,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19:3, Summer 2005, p. 7. They stress that Adam Smith saw motivations of fairness and altruism (as opposed to pure self-interest) as contributing to trust, which in turn lubricates markets.
[۲۲] Nancy Potter describes a situation when she was working as a counselor and received a call from a teenager who said she had just taken an overdose of pills to commit suicide. Even though the girl had asked her specifically not to call an ambulance, she did so (and saved the girl’s life), and also lied to the girl when she asked if she had done so. In this case most people would feel that she was justified to lie. See Nancy Nyquist Potter, How Can I be Trusted? A Virtue Theory of Trustworthiness, (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002), pp. 43ff.
[۲۳] Rollo May, Power and Innocence, pp. 99-100.
[۲۴] Henry Cloud, Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality, (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), pp. 21-35.
[۲۵] Cloud, p. 281.