Trust and Distrust

Nick Lynn PhD
7 min readMar 15, 2024

Why and how you may need to tackle both

Roy Lewicki et al (1998)

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust lately. Specifically, I’ve returned to an idea that I first came across more than twenty years ago, which is that “distrust” is not simply “the absence of trust” but something distinct, although clearly linked.

That idea was first developed by Roy Lewicki, Daniel McAllister and Robert Bies in 1998. Rather than viewing distrust as “no trust” they argued that trust and distrust are conceptually different and can even co-exist.

I am simplifying, but their point is that while trust can be loosely defined as the extent to which one displays a tendency to be willing to depend on others, distrust includes the risk, fear or even expectation of harm.

There are parallels with other concepts. For example, Frederick Herzberg’s theory that job dissatisfaction is not simply low satisfaction, but the result of specific hygiene factors. Similarly, employee silence is not just “no voice” but fear of the consequences of speaking up (in part, because of a lack of psychological safety).

Having distinguished between trust and distrust, Roy Lewicki et al identify four potential situations, which I have illustrated above and summarise now:

1️⃣ Low trust and low distrust: Here an individual has neither reason to be confident nor reason to be wary. Parties are likely to engage superficially. Conversation will be kept simple, not violating the privacy of either party or suggesting the existence of closeness or intimacy.

2️⃣ High trust and low distrust: This is when one actor has reason to be confident in another and no reason to suspect the other. This relationship is characterized by interdependence where parties are assured that partners are pursuing common objectives. This is what great EX leadership is all about!

3️⃣ High distrust and low trust: Here one actor has no reason for confidence in another and ample reason for wariness. Conditions such as these make it extremely difficult to maintain effective interdependent relations over time.

4️⃣ High trust and high distrust: This is when one party has reason to be confident in another in certain respects, but also reason to be wary and suspicious in other respects. This is the tricky quadrant to get your head around, but I’ve seen this kind of situation in some M&As, for example.

It’s important to note that many writers don’t agree with this profiling and continue to see trust and distrust as linear opposites. But since the trust-distrust framework was first developed there has been more research.

Angelika Dimoka for example, looked at brain images and found that “trust is associated with the brain’s reward, prediction, and uncertainty areas, while distrust is associated with the brain’s intense emotions and fear for loss areas.” This led her to argue that “since trust and distrust span distinct brain areas, there is support for the hypothesis that trust and distrust are distinct constructs.” Here are some of her images:

Source: Angelika Dimoka

Martin Reimann, Oliver Schilke, and Karen Cook looked at genetic as well as social influences on trust and distrust. They argued their “results demonstrate that although the disposition to trust is explained to some extent by heritability but not by shared socialization, the disposition to distrust is explained by shared socialization but not by heritability. The sources of distrust are therefore distinct from the sources of trust in many ways.”

Although Mark Saunders, Graham Dietz, and Adrian Thornhill found little evidence that trust and distrust can coexist, they did find through mixed-method experiments that they may be separate constructs. They argued that employees’ trust and distrust judgements are shaped, in part, by managerial actions and policies relating to communication and job security. But crucially, “when employees are distrustful, differing practice interventions may be needed to reduce distrust than those used to build trust.”

📌 I think this point is actually the key. The main take away of all this for me is that building trust is not always sufficient, you may also need to tackle the causes of distrust. The problems are not always the same. They may sometimes require different solutions.

What matters for building trust and what can you do?

There is a vast literature on how to build trust, no shortage of advice. Shown below are four models that resonate with me for different reasons.

Those four models are:

🔸 Frances Frei and Anne Morriss’ “Trust Triangle

🔸 David Maister’s “Trust Equation

🔸 Don Peppers & Martha Rogers’ “Extreme Trust

🔸 Joseph Folkman’s “The Trifecta of Trust

If you stand back, you can identify some common ingredients:

✔ Communication: Sharing information, providing clear expectations, and listening actively.

✔ Consistency: In actions, policies, and decision-making processes.

✔ Integrity: Acting with honesty and fairness, and following clear values, even when it’s difficult (especially when it’s difficult).

✔ Competence: Demonstrating the ability to perform job responsibilities effectively and efficiently.

✔ Reliability: Following through on commitments and promises.

✔ Supportiveness: Offering help and support to people and being receptive to their ideas and concerns.

✔ Inclusion and respect: Showing consideration for the feelings, values, and ideas of others.

✔ Fairness: Applying rules and policies impartially and justly.

✔ Recognition: Acknowledging and appreciating people’s contributions.

✔ Confidentiality: Respecting privacy and handling sensitive information with discretion.

✔ Empathy: Understanding and sharing the feelings of others.

✔ Vulnerability: Being willing to show your own limitations, mistakes, and fears.

✔ Empowerment: Giving people some power and control in decision-making.

✔ Psychological Safety: Making sure people can speak up, that they can disagree, that they can take risks and admit mistakes.

✔ Constructive Feedback: Providing helpful, non-judgmental feedback at the right time and in the right place.

The point about feedback is vital. One thing I do a lot of is collect and replay feedback to managers. It’s normally direct feedback from their team. We help managers understand the experience they’re shaping and we identify strengths and opportunities. Managers are then supported with advice and resources so they can involve people in making changes. This is about creating a cycle of trust-building through active listening and involvement. It’s a key way to build trust even across a large organisation.

What matters for tackling distrust and what can you do?

Sources of distrust may be more systemic and organisational. In order to take action on the elements that create distrust, you first need great insights. This is where large scale listening (active and passive) as well as people analytics come in. If you’re interested, I have described a framework for evolving employee listening elsewhere.

In my experience, any assessment of organisational health, which is what I’m arguing for here, should cover four key areas:

🔹 Work: The organisation of work, how decisions are made, the way change is led, and the focus on customers and the market.

🔹 Total Rewards: Including the support for wellbeing, growth and development, as well as recognition and transparency.

🔹 People: How team members cooperate and relate to their boss, as well as how teams work together and where there is open communication with leaders.

🔹 Purpose: Including role alignment, feeling included, and that you’re contributing to the organisation’s mission and vision.

Here’s a summary of those four elements:

Insights into these areas mean you can then:

✔ Understand and tackle sources of unfairness and inequity.

✔ Identify and address bullying, harassment and aggressive micromanagement.

✔ Understand how people live your values and whether they believe they really matter.

✔ Hold managers accountable for behaviours by improving assessment, focusing on how people lead and not just results.

✔ Invest in people’s learning and development to build resilience and provide confidence they can thrive in a rapidly-changing world of work.

✔ Establish meaningful rewards, help people cope with cost-of-living pressures, and ensure pay fairness.

✔ Recognise great performance in order to turbo-charge engagement.

✔ Provide benefits that support people’s needs and preferences.

✔ Involve people in transforming work rather than imposing changes from the top down.

✔ Build a culture of wellbeing that is holistic and woven into the fabric of organisational life.

This list is far from exhaustive. I hope it provides an illustration of how, when it comes to improving employee experience, you need to identify and tackle the systemic issues that cause distrust alongside also equipping managers to build trust within their own teams.

Don’t assume that if you do one, you don’t also need to do the other.

If this resonates with you, drop me a line to learn more about how we help companies build trust and tackle distrust through employee experience leadership.