3 Factors that Build Trust and How to Fix it When it Breaks

Posted on December 14, 2018

Trust is a vital component of leadership and something that must be handled professionally, carefully and smartly.

It is a leadership element that is built through ability, benevolence and integrity. All three serve an important function in determining if employees will trust you as a manager and to what extent. Having one of those components without the other two will only take you so far, says Dr. Jim Davis, an expert on trust who teaches about it in the University of Notre Dame’s online Leadership Challenges course through its Stayer Center for Executive Education in the Mendoza College of Business.

He uses two famous generals as an example: U.S. Army General George Patton of World War II fame and Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson of England, a Naval commander in the late 1700s.

Both were powerful men and both had integrity with their subordinates. But only one had benevolence.

Patton “had huge ability to win a battle, but he was not known as being benevolent,” Davis says. He was known to be a bit of a tyrant, like when he visited the hospitals filled with injured soldiers and physically abused some he felt should be out in the field, Davis says.

Nelson was a phenomenal leader who treated everyone with the same respect, whether he was speaking to the sailor scrubbing the deck or a fellow admiral. It was called “the Nelson way,” Davis says. He had benevolence, where Patton lacked it.

Principles in business are the same, Davis says.

Trust Factors

When people trust you, they will be willing to take perceived risk with you or for you. Performance as a leader goes up when you have that trusting relationship, Davis teaches.

Ability is when you are “able” to do what you say you can do. When Michael Jordan tells you he can play basketball, you can be confident in that, Davis says.

“Ability’s not enough,” Davis says. The second attribute of trust is benevolence. “A person being trusted wants to do good for the person trusting them. If I perceive you would never do anything to purposely hurt me, I have a higher probability of trusting you.”

If your team believes you have integrity, its members are more likely to trust you. That is “my perception that you adhere to a set of principles that I find acceptable,” Davis says. “Integrity is when you say you are going to do it and you do it.”

Leaders Need All Three Ingredients to Gain Trust

Having all three ingredients – integrity, benevolence and ability – is key, Davis says. “In the end you must have all three.”

Here are some examples of how it doesn’t work:

High in ability, but low in benevolence and integrity: “Bernie Madoff could do a phenomenal Ponzi scheme, but he’d rob his own mother,” Davis says, using as an example the infamous New Yorker convicted for running the largest case of securities and stock fraud in the history of the nation.

High benevolence, low ability, low integrity: President Warren G. Harding, is a good example in this category, Davis says. He put his friends in cabinet positions. It turned out they had no ability and no integrity. They did lousy jobs in their cabinet positions and some were convicted of accepting bribes from oil companies in what was called the Tea Pot Dome Scandal.

High integrity, low ability low benevolence: This is the typical case of the school hall monitor, Davis says. Stick a badge on an under-achiever with little ability or self-esteem and they’ll turn in their best friend, who will never trust them again.

Repairing Broken Trust

Ability is easy to fix. You can learn and be trained. If your company’s trust is broken because you are sending out defective products or have poor customer relations, you need to demonstrate that you have overcome that deficit, that lack of ability. You earn trust again.

If trust is damaged because of a lack of benevolence or integrity, it takes a long time to return. It may never return to the original level.

If you break trust, make it an ability issue, because you can fix it, Davis teaches. If it’s benevolence or integrity that causes the break, good luck.

“Don’t break trust. Build trust,” Davis says. “If you can build trust, you can lead change.”