Trust and Distrust

Roy Lewicki 

Professor of Management and Human Resources at Ohio State University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: I am going to ask you to contextualize again the idea of trust building versus managing distrust, either from an example that you've seen or witnessed. I want to know the difference between the two. So the difference between what building trust looks like and what managing distrust looks like. Then, maybe if you can, can you explain how you move from managing distrust to building trust?

A: I think building trust is about creating confident, positive expectations about the other's conduct. Therefore, the way we shape those expectations by the way we talk to each other, by being clear about our expectations for each other, by following through with each other, by doing what we say we will do, and by being honest and straightforward. These are all trust building kinds of action in a relationship. Managing distrust is trying to protect against the downside risk that the other, in fact, is out to do us in or out to take advantage of us or who's way of operating is so inconsistent with our own that if we allow them to take action for us we know we could live with the results or the consequences of what they did. Therefore, managing distrust is about creating boundaries. Managing distrust is about creating rules and frameworks for what is appropriate and inappropriate to do. It is about separating or segmenting our activities so I am in areas where I try to minimize how much you can affect me and what I do. We know a lot less about how we manage all the complex ways we manage distrust, although there is some good writing that is coming out now.

Q: Can you think of an example for illustrative purposes, like a story, where one process or another process was very clear?

A: I have a graduate student working for me who I gave a number of small projects to do, so I could find out what that person could do. It was very clear that, as I gave that person things to do, they did them quick, on-time, thoroughly, went beyond what I had asked them to do, they tried to anticipate my needs, and they brought it back quickly done. I was incredibly impressed. As a result, I gave this one individual a lot of responsibility on a next project that has to be done quickly, timely, and well; but I have full confidence that that individual will follow through. Those were trust building actions that occurred over a very short period of time. I can think of another student who I worked with who wants to work with me on some ideas but has not been reliable, comes in and shows a real interest and then disappears for a period of time and gets lost. Then I occasionally have to prompt and prod as to what is going on. I have to ask how they are coming along, where their work is, and what kind of progress they are making. They eventually come back and it doesn't look like there has been very much progress made. Now that individual is asking me to serve a major sort of advising role in their academic future and I am quite reluctant to do so. This is because everything that I have seen thus far says that individual is asking me for a much bigger time commitment relative to their graduate education and I haven't seen anything yet that is going to indicate to me that this is going to pay off. I have nothing to indicate to me that my time will be well invested relative to what I do.

Q: So the way you manage that distrust is by not committing?

A: In this case? Yes. I can think of other individuals in my work place who are not only unreliable or predictable but their motives are quite self-centered. So when they ask me for something to borrow something, to look at something, and to describe something, the first thing that goes through my head is how are they going to use this in a way to take advantage of my good nature or my time and energy? I feel that they want to do that to get a major advantage over me. This is expressed in terms of making more money at it or they get more fame out of it, or they get more visibility. This is active distrust from my point of view. Now I am quite guarded, careful, and cautious about what I share, what I say, and how I say it because I know there is a probability that that relationship may get abused.