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Trust: What do we know about it? How can we build it? (1/2)

  • September 2018

Why: The business case for trust

There can be no doubt that trust plays an eminent role in teams and organizations – in fact, in any relationship. It is often called the glue that holds organizations together, the oil that makes the machine run more smoothly and – in the long run at least – more efficiently. But is there a clear business case? Most likely there is! Studies have linked trust with job performance (Colquitt, Scott & LePine, 2007) and with growth (Zak & Knack, 2001). Also, there is plenty of evidence that trusted economies and businesses are more attractive for investors. Trust is the key to building collaboration, employee engagement, productivity, customer loyalty, and sustainable business performance. Of course, most of the studies are correlational and correlation does not necessarily mean causation. It is not always easy to prove that trust is actually the cause of these desirable outcomes, but most researchers (and virtually all consultants) believe that the relationship is indeed causal.

However, in the case of trust, our clients don’t even ask for evidence. They know: It is good to have more of it. Can we help them with that? Yes, we can. But before we look at how, we need to better understand what trust actually is.

What is trust?

Trust can arise between people (interpersonal), groups, and organizations. In what follows we focus on interpersonal trust. The act of trusting another person involves two specific aspects: reliance and risk. Some researchers, therefore, define trust as “the decision to rely on another party (i.e. person, group, or organization) under a condition of risk” (Currall & Inkpen, 2006:336). In this case, risk means it is possible that the person who bestows trust (the trustor) will experience a negative outcome (injury, loss). If that risk did not exist, there would be no need for trust.

How is trust built?

The most interesting question for our clients (and for us) is this: How is trust built? A quick look into the – extensive – research on trust reveals that it is a very complex phenomenon. The perception of trustworthiness cannot be reduced to a single factor (Tsankova, Vanman & Kappas, 2018:31). Instead, it is based on many different factors which influence each other.

The decision to trust someone and rely on this person in a situation involving an element of risk is based on confidence in a positive outcome. Whether a trustor develops this confidence depends on several factors (according to the model of Dietz & Den Hartog, 2006):

a) The trustor's predisposition to trust. This generalized trust is relatively important in the early stages of interaction but becomes less important as more information on the trustee becomes available. It varies between individuals and might be accompanied by strong political opinions or cultural norms and other attitudes (e.g. never trust someone wearing a tie);
b) The trustworthiness of the trustee – their character, motives, abilities, and behaviors. Trust can be granted across the board or restricted to certain domains, e.g. only in a work context, or to a certain degree – a recent graduate will be trusted with smaller projects but not with strategic decisions affecting the whole company;
c) Trust is an assumption, and the relationship between trustor and trustee impacts on the strength of that assumption of the confidence in the positive outcome. Stronger and more personal relationships will give rise to deeper and more emotional forms of trust. Aspects such as hierarchical positions within the relationship can also impact on building trust;
d) Other situational or institutional aspects can also influence the formation of trust. Knowing that a doctor has sworn the Hippocratic Oath might influence my decision to trust her. Similarly, formal degrees (PhD etc.) might also have an early impact on the building of trust, while affiliation with an institution (the government, the police, the church, Egon Zehnder) is also likely to exert an influence.

Note, however, that the decision to trust only implies an intention to act. Whether or not a person actually engages in risk-taking behaviors such as surrendering control over valuable resources to the trustee or disclosing sensitive information will still depend on the possible consequences for the trustor beyond the relationship with the trustee. The trustor might, for example, fear the consequences of a third person’s reaction to the relationship of trust between trustor and trustee.

Some of the trust-forming processes are subconscious; others are more conscious. Hence, not all of these factors can be easily influenced. In what follows, we provide a selection of insights into first impressions and the part played by similarities and biological facts in this process, before going on to describe how to influence the building of trust.

First impressions

Trust is created during a process of interaction – and we have plenty of opportunities to influence this process. However, even before we enter into this interaction, a first impression is already being formed in our mind (and in the mind of the other person). It takes only a few seconds – and is remarkably accurate.

Probably the most famous experiments in first impressions were conducted by Stanford professor Nalini Ambady. Her research was popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his book Blink. In a groundbreaking study, Nalini Ambady and her colleague Robert Rosenthal (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1997) invited students into a lab and showed them short – and silent – video clips of teaching fellows. The students, who had never met these teachers, were asked to rate 15 characteristics including how accepting, empathetic, optimistic, professional or supportive the teacher seemed. The impressions they formed based on their brief observations were highly correlated with end-of-semester ratings by students who had actually taken the class (correlation coefficient .76). Previous research had used five-minute video clips, but Prof. Ambady wanted to know how thin a slice of behavior could yield accurate impressions. They started with 10-second clips, then cut it down to five- and then two-second clips. Even after two seconds, the first impressions of students who had never met the teachers successfully predicted the evaluations of students who had worked with them for months.

What is even more remarkable is that our first impression of whether or not to trust a stranger is formed even faster. Facial features are one of our most important sources of information in social interactions. And some faces look more trustworthy than others. This information is processed very fast, as an experiment at the NYU has shown (Willis & Todorov, 2006). In this experiment the amygdala, a structure in our brain that plays an important role in the emotional evaluation of situations and therefore also in detecting danger, reacted to pictures of less trustworthy faces even if those pictures were presented for less than 50 milliseconds. When we “see” pictures for less than 50 milliseconds, we are not consciously aware of them. It takes longer than that for our neocortex to register signals. However, our brain still processes this information.


Another important factor that helps to build trust toward a stranger is similarity. We are more likely to trust people who are like us. Similarity evaluations can be made on different levels. Whether or not they instill deep trust depends on the level concerned. Superficial similarities (such as looks) will be more important in snap decisions on trust, whereas similarities of interest will inspire deeper trust. Here are some facets of similarity:

  • Similar and easy-to-pronounce names: People who have names which are easier to pronounce are trusted more (Newman et. al, 2014). The same is apparently true of companies: Shares of companies with easy-to-pronounce names perform better on the stock market than shares of companies whose names are difficult to pronounce (Alter & Oppenheimer, 2006). Pronounceability might actually be a proxy for familiarity.
  • Similar facial features: We trust people more when they look similar to us (DeBruine, 2002).
  • Similar social group memberships: Members of the same or a similar group (ingroup members) are perceived to be more trustworthy than members of another group or simply anyone outside the group (outgroup members) (Tsankova et al. 2018).
  • Similar interests: People with similar interests are more likely to trust one another. Ziegler and Golbeck (2007) reported that people who have similar tastes in film and literature trust one another more than people with dissimilar film/literature tastes. (This is why sales people often try to find similarities in hobbies, etc. before they start selling you things).
  • Genetic similarity: Interestingly, people tend to have friends that share certain genes and differ on other genes (Fowler, Settle, & Christakis, 2011). While genes cannot be directly “observed”, what we can observe is other people’s behavior. And certain genes are likely to contribute to certain social traits and behaviors. To be perfectly clear: Social traits are influenced by many factors including a multiplicity of genetic and epigenetic factors. Single-gene paradigms can contribute to behavioral patterns, but they can never explain large portions of variability in social behavior (Insel, 2010).


Genes and hormones also influence whether or not and how trust is built, with oxytocin being of special relevance here.

  • The hormone oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle” hormone, is associated with bonding in mammalian species, including humans. Experiments have shown that it has an influence on many facets of prosociality, including generosity, empathy, and trust. Higher levels of oxytocin reinforce trusting behavior – people become more willing to trust others (Kosfeld, Heinrichs, Zak, Fischbacher, & Fehr, 2005). But oxytocin does not inhibit our ability to judge the trustworthiness of the other person. More recent studies found that the prosocial effects of oxytocin occur only in the absence of cues that a social partner may be untrustworthy (Mikolajczak et al. 2010). In other words, such cues (processed in the amygdala) override the influence of our hormones. (Incidentally, oxytocin is available online in the form of a nasal spray called “liquid trust”. In the product description on Amazon it says: “Studies have shown that it can help people gain the trust of others.” This is simply wrong: Oxytocin is likely to increase your willingness to trust others, but it will not directly increase your own trustworthiness.)
  • Studies suggest that trust-related behavior is partially heritable. A study with twins (Cesarini et al. 2008) found that in a trust game, 10 – 20% of the decision to trust was predicted by our genes. Another study found that people who were perceived to be trustworthy possessed a particular variation of an oxytocin receptor gene known as the GG genotype (Kogan et al. 2011).



– What do we know about it? How can we build it? (1/2)

– What do we know about it? How can we build it? (2/2)



Alter, A. L., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Predicting short-term stock fluctuations by using processing fluency. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(24), 9369-9372.

Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1997). Judging social behavior using "thin slices". Chance, 10, 12-18. Cesarini, D., Dawes, C. T., Fowler, J. H., Johannesson, M., Lichtenstein, P., & Wallace, B. (2008). Heritability of cooperative behavior in the trust game. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 3721-3726.

Colquitt, J.A., Scott, B.A., & LePine, J.A. (2007). Trust, trustworthiness, and trust propensity: a meta-analytic test of their unique relationships with risk taking and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 909-927.

Currall, S.C. & Inkpen, A.C. (2006). On the complexity of organizational trust: A multi-level co-evolutionary perspective and guidelines for future research. In R. Bachmann and A. Zaheer (Eds.): Handbook of Trust Research (pp. 235-246). Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.

DeBruine, L. M. (2002). Facial resemblance enhances trust. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 269(1498), 1307-1312.

Dietz, G., & Den Hartog, D. N. (2006). Measuring trust inside organisations. Personnel Review, 35, 557-588.

Fowler, J. H., Settle, J. E., & Christakis, N. A. (2011). Correlated genotypes in friendship networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(5), 1993-1997.

Insel, T. R. (2010). The challenge of translation in social neuroscience: a review of oxytocin, vasopressin, and affiliative behavior. Neuron, 65(6), 768-779.

Kogan, A., Saslow, L. R., Impett, E. A., Oveis, C., Keltner, D., & Saturn, S. R. (2011). Thin-slicing study of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene and the evaluation and expression of the prosocial disposition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 19189-19192.

Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435(7042), 673.

Mikolajczak, M., Gross, J. J., Lane, A., Corneille, O., de Timary, P., & Luminet, O. (2010). Oxytocin makes people trusting, not gullible. Psychological Science, 21, 1072-1074.

Newman, E. J., Sanson, M., Miller, E. K., Quigley-McBride, A., Foster, J. L., Bernstein, D. M., & Garry, M. (2014). People with easier to pronounce names promote truthiness of claims. PloS One, 9(2), e88671.

Tsankova, E., Vanman, E. J., & Kappas, A. (2018). Interaction of stereotypical trustworthiness, facial resemblance, and group membership in the perception of trustworthiness and other traits. Journal of Trust Research, 8, 31-44.

Willis, J. & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions. Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science, 17, 592-598.

Zak, P. J., & Knack, S. (2001). Trust and growth. Economic Journal, 111, 295-321.

Ziegler, C. N., & Golbeck, J. (2007). Investigating interactions of trust and interest similarity. Decision Support Systems, 43, 460-475.

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Wolfhart Pentz
Wolfhart Pentz
Wolfhart Pentz leitet die Praxisgruppe Leadership Services in Deutschland und konzentriert sich auf die Entwicklung von Führungskräften und die…
Kathrin Heinitz
Kathrin Heinitz
Kathrin arbeitet an der Weiterentwicklung und Validierung der Egon Zehnder-Diagnostik. Als promovierte Psychologin und ehemalige Juniorprofessorin für Arbeits- und Organisationspsychologie sichert sie unseren hohen Anspruch an Evidenz und Qualität. Daneben berät sie bei Projekten in den Bereichen Top-Management und Organisationsentwicklung. Kathrin hat zu den Themen Leadership, Positive Psychologie in Organisationen und Diversität geforscht und zahlreiche Fachartikel publiziert.
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