Trust in Human Relationships

in Developmental, I/O, Public News

Let’s pause and think about the word “trust.” It is such a powerful word. It is likely flattering when someone says they trust you. And it is likely worrisome when someone says they do not trust you. Yet, whether it is an absence of trust or simply a tarnished trust, we must understand the human dynamics before we can ameliorate human relationships hampered by trust issues. The following will explore the meaning of the word trust as it applies to a person’s trust of another person.

When discussing concepts I always prefer to begin with simple definitions. Trust can be defined as a firm belief in or “reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).

Some years ago while consulting with an organization, I had the occasion to interview individually three key managers, each of whom said they did not trust the president of the company. In each case, I inquired as to the specific aspect of the president’s behavior they did not trust. To my surprise, each interviewee talked about a different aspect of the president’s behavior. Thus began my interest in the meaning and role of trust in organizational relationships.       

If someone says they do not trust another person, you would have to look at the context and even ask what exactly it is they do not trust in the other person. It may be necessary to ask for specific incidents that exemplify the reason for the mistrust in an effort to understand the root cause of problems in the specific relationship.  

I have concluded there are many subtle distinctions that must be acknowledged when understanding the type of mistrust one has vis-à-vis another. For example, if I say I do not trust someone, it could mean I do not trust someone’s:

  1. Honesty – meaning I think they lie or tell only partial truths (when it is to their advantage).
  2. Competence – meaning I have doubts regarding the other person’s capability to perform.
  3. Judgment – meaning, regardless of the other person’s education, knowledge and experience, I question the person’s decision-making.
  4. Commitment – meaning I have doubts regarding their steadfast motivation and tenacity to continue their efforts to follow through on obligations in the face of challenges.
  5. Loyalty – meaning I question whether the other person will manifest firm and constant support or allegiance to another person or institution.
  6. Physical stamina – meaning I have doubts regarding the other person’s physical capability to complete the task.
  7. Intelligence (independent of current skill/competency) – meaning I have concerns regarding the person’s general intellectual capability and/or specific aptitudes, especially as they relate to an upcoming challenge. 
  8. Sense of fairness in terms of process and/or outcome – meaning I question whether the other person understands and will act in a manner reflecting a concern for both the perceived fairness of a process and the perceived fairness of the outcome attributed to the process.
  9. Motive/intent – meaning I question the underlying intentions or motives of the person. 
  10. Behavioral/Emotional predictability – meaning I do not believe the other person will adhere to group norms and/or I find the other person’s behavior to be unpredictable.   

I am sure the reader can think of other nuanced differences regarding trust issues between people, but the above distinctions should prove a good starting point to explore the meaning of the word trust and, by extension, the meaning of mistrust.  

Thus, I ask you to think about the people with whom you live and/or work most closely. Where is the trust weakened or even broken with each of these people? What is the biggest concern you have regarding each person’s trustworthiness?  Do you trust a particular person in some of the ways listed above, but not in other ways?

In some cases, problematic behavior can cause inconsolable hurt or irreparable damage to a relationship, suggesting there is nothing that can be done to “undo” the pain or damage (e.g., the person’s action resulted in a lost opportunity). In this situation, one can still ask whether it is possible to move forward in the relationship without the past haunting the future?

If so, the only option to save the relationship may be for the perpetrator of the interpersonal hurt to perceive the hurtful behavior, acknowledge and accept responsibility for the damage caused, and apologize for his/her words and actions. The expressed remorse and apology may allow the two people to move forward in their personal and business relationship.  Of course, apologies must be sincerely given and sincerely accepted, and both parties must truly be able to forgive and forget, or at least go forward together without bringing up the previous indiscretion.

Think of this in terms of the spouse who cheated, was caught, cannot undo the damage, but whose husband/wife can say: “I love you and our relationship is more important than this single event. Now that we have talked, let’s move on together………………………….but don’t ever treat me like this again. Okay?”

There is so much more we can say about trust in interpersonal and business relationships as well as in society in general and in the current political environment. It is important to understand how we lose the trust of others as well as how we can possibly regain trust once it is lost.  For those who are interested in pursuing additional information regarding trust issues, I recommend an internet search using words and phrases such as “trust,” “how one can lose trust,” and “how one can re-gain trust.”


Dr. Courtland Chaney is a licensed industrial/organizational (I-O) psychologist and a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR, SHRM-SCP). He currently provides consulting services under the business name HRMA and continues to design and teach non-credit management and leadership training courses under the auspices of Louisiana State University (LSU) Continuing Education. Find more on Dr. Chaney here.