Trust Breeds Trustworthiness

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I have a friend from the U.S. who was recently touring Tokyo on foot. He had an expensive camera that he was carrying around his neck, but as he entered a museum, he was told he couldn’t take it in. He looked around for a locker or some guarded place to put it, but the man taking tickets motioned for him to put it on a shelf across the room that held several other cameras. He was reluctant to leave it there because nobody was guarding the shelf and it would have been easy for exiting museum-goers, or even someone off the street, to stroll past and pick up his camera. But he left it there as instructed, and was pleased when it was in exactly the same spot when he came out.

What is it about the culture in Japan that makes this scenario commonplace, whereas in the U.S., the museum would have had to supply lockers or a guard to monitor the shelf? The answer reminds me of the culture of an IT group that I used to lead. One of our tenets was “Trust people to do the right thing without the need for lots of rules”, and unlike other organizations I had worked in, we had very few rules guiding the behavior of employees. Instead, this group of about 200 people had a shared commitment to get the job done, and a belief that they were being trusted. As a result, we didn’t experience the bad behavior that I’ve seen in so many other groups, such as people showing up late for work or meetings, and needing to be prompted to put in extra hours to complete a project on time. Contrary to common practice in many corporations and nations, we knew that trusting people compels them to be trustworthy.

Why does this work? It’s easy to understand just by observing how trust makes you feel. When someone trusts me, it’s an indication of respect, and I feel a strong conviction from the core of my body to be worthy of that respect. Contrarily, when a boss or organization imposes rules and restrictions on me, I take that as a sign of lack of trust and respect, and I feel resentful and indignant. This gives me no motivation to act in their best interests. What does this have to do with Japan?

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist and anthropologist, states that the Japanese and other collectivist nations are far less likely to have explicit rules written into laws as compared with nations such as the U.S. He also points out that Japanese business contracts are much shorter than American business contracts. This implies that the Japanese culture puts more implicit trust in people, and it follows that the Japanese people have responded with a conviction to be worthy of that respect.

This calls into question the practice we have in the U.S. of being quick to introduce new legislation. Between 2000 and 2007, Congress created over 450 new crimes, with the total number of Federal crimes as of the end of 2007 exceeding 4,450. If the purpose of legislation is to provide guidelines to citizens so they understand and exhibit acceptable behavior, the U.S. clearly has less effective legislation than any other rich country. About 2.4m U.S. citizens are behind bars, which is roughly one in every 100 adults. In comparison, as a proportion of its total population, the U.S. incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and twelve times more than Japan. If the purpose of legislation is to keep immoral people off the streets, the U.S. fails this measure as well, as each of these countries has homicide rates that are significantly lower than the U.S., and clearly unguarded cameras are much safer in Japan.

This points to a good leadership practice that some people will find counter-intuitive. If the group you’re leading isn’t exhibiting the behavior that you desire, think first about how you can increase trustworthiness by reducing the rules and restrictions.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. David Mullin  February 20, 2012

    Good article. Yeah, these points need to be stressed as we head into a new environment with multicultural values. The East will meet the West if the West will offer thoughts of a universal humanity. They need to know that the West has fresh knowledge and we must rise to this challenge! Fortunately, this is getting on the radar of business people. Keep writing it. We’ll keep doing it.

  2. John Gelmini  February 23, 2012

    People are either trustworthy or they are not.
    This stems from upbringing and character moulded when you were a child and cannot be added later by psychological or mystical means.
    There was a time in the Western world where a person,s word meant something and a handshake was enough to conclude a deal.
    People understood the difference between right and wrong without having to consult a lawyer or pore over the legalese themselves.
    Today ,I and my colleagues a long time checking people out to electron microscope levels of scrutiny,getting them to sign NDA,s,non circumvention agreements,secrecy agreements and evaluating their willingness and ability to pay.
    Even then it is necessary to evaluate body language and listen for what they are not saying as well as their inflexion on each word uttered.
    This never used to be the case but unfortunately the watchword has to be the old Russian proverb “Trust but verify”.
    In other cultures the process of knowing a person and their habits,background takes very much longer but once they do trust you ,you can rest easy in the knowledge that they will not try at some later stage to unpick or renege on what was originally agreed.

  3. Jackie Barretta  February 23, 2012

    John, I understand what you’re saying, but it’s difficult for me to accept that, at least in the U.S., people are just going to keep becoming less trustworthy. There must be a way to turn this around. And I strongly think the introduction of new legislation is taking us in the wrong direction, for the reasons stated in the article.

    I’m interested in hearing more thoughts on how we can prompt people to do the right thing without the need for lots of rules (which don’t work anyway).

  4. John Gelmini  February 23, 2012

    These for many people are very difficult times .
    Price Waterhouse Coopers characterises economies in this condition as “Zombie Economies” and Jeff Inmelt the CEO of GE calls it “The New Normal”.
    When people are desperate or money is tight the fact is the incidence of petty crime and fraud increase as the crime statistics show in Europe and in the USA.
    This manifests itself in credit card fraud,salespersons padding out expense claims,politicians committing fraud as happened with British MP,s,a scandal broken by the Daily Telegraph.
    On a bigger scale $2.9 trillion USD disappeared from the Pentagon budget and this money remains unaccounted for along with billions more from the bailout fund and a further $400 billion USD which disappeared just before Lehman Brothers ,the cornerstone and retaining wall of the global financial system went down.
    In the UK the Ministry of Defence operates to a 6% to 8% Project tolerance using the Prince 2 standard yet in my entire lifetime not one piece of military procurement or project has ever been completed on time or to budget in my entire lifetime
    Some people say that this Lehman Brothers money disappeared to an undisclosed location in Israel and yet no attempt has been made to track down the culprits and bring them to justice or recover the money.
    Many people now practice “moral relativism” when they see malfeasance on this monumental scale and attempt where they can to avoid tax on repair bills,understate their income or even operate in the black economy.
    They justify their actions by saying to themselves that if the rich and powerful can get away with it then they (the little people),need to “wet their beaks” as well.
    This starts in the home and the classroom whereby people must be taught right from wrong within whatever religeous or philosophical tradition they come from.
    With adults there has to be a certainty that if they are caught engaging in malfeasance and criminality they will be caught and punished under existing laws and made an example of.
    People must see that whether you are a billionaire or a pauper the punishment is the same and that the existing law is applied fairly.
    As it is people see that justice is not even handed and recently a Masonic lawyer ,the judge and a defendant were seen using sign language which affected the outcome of the case without most of those present in the courtroom,other than other Freemasons,knowing what was going on.
    For those adults who have not gone off the rails they need to be incentivised in such a way that by committing acts of fraud and petty theft against their employers they are hurting themselves financially.
    This is cheaper than security measures and surveillance to prevent fraud.

  5. Gregory Jones  February 23, 2012


    I look forward to sharing this with my team to hear their thoughts. I had one of my most steadfast hourly teammates tell me today, “They always lie.”

    I will reluctantly admit that sometimes the truth changes as the business environment changes, but very rarely (bordering on zero) have I ever seen a successful management team engage in systematically untruthful communication to the hourly labor force.

    As with almost everything involving human interaction, effective communication is critical and also, very difficult to achieve in all cases. Trust becomes essential. We must all trust that each of us is genuinely doing our best to achieve corporate goals.



  6. Robin Sheader  February 23, 2012

    Hi Jackie

    To create trust, first be trustworthy yourself (as I am sure you are).

    When we hire an employee, or engage that employee in an activity or conversation, we get the whole person. We get the body the mind and we get the heart. How often do we ignore the mind and the heart? How often do we expect a person to leave their mind at the front door when they come to work? A persons whole being is the body, their mind and their heart.

    Just think how effective our organization would be if every employee brought their entire being to work with them every day. The true leader understands this and attempts in all dealings to capture the whole being of every employee. One of the ways we do this is by living out the following operating principle:

    Value the person for who they are rather than what they do.
    If the value that we place on a person is based on their job, their role or their work, then we limit the value that this person has to the organization or the company. If however we value that person for who they are, then we begin to consider their mind and their heart and look for opportunities that may well be outside of their current role.

    I have found that living through this principle helps to generate the trustworthiness you are looking for.

  7. Stephanie Hilliard  February 23, 2012

    Good article. However, I must say that unless someone is brought up in an environment, at home and societally, that encourages trustworthy behavior, just offering them trust in the work environment may not be enough. For example, I have worked with at risk kids for the past few years. I have seen when trusting them has paid off – they won’t steal from me because I care about them and feed them. I have also seen when trusting wasn’t enough to get them to act in a trustworthy manner because they lacked the moral and ethical background to understand the value of being trustworthy.

    The Japanese culture supports respect and trustworthiness. It is woven into the fabric of their societal expectations. Our culture, unfortunately, has lost that.

  8. Deanna B.  February 23, 2012

    i largely agree with your thoughts here, jackie. when people are given the opportunity to be trustworthy without rules dictating it, they will often fall into that role easily. however, i also believe that for someone to be trustworthy, they almost always have to have been taught it from a young age.

    someone who is inherently untrustworthy is probably not going to change just because their company is more flexible with rules. in my experience they will just take full advantage of the lack of oversight. i think people need to be trustworthy in the first place in order for the lack of procedure to work well.

  9. Joe Pittari  February 23, 2012

    So long as people can produce what you want/expect them to do…then the process shouldn’t matter. Give people the flexibility to think, learn, explore, etc. as a group. They feel empowered and know you trust them without micro-managing them. Trust is a two way street…hard to gain and easy to lose…just like $$$

  10. Glen Fahs  February 23, 2012

    I agree that while clear expectations are helpful, a large number of rules creates resistance. Comparing the U.S. to other countries raises the issue of culture. Homogeneous cultures require less explicit rules since people know the expectations and want to fit in. The diversity of the U.S. breaks down the sense of “we are all in this together,” leaving many marginalized who may commit crimes because they feel a part of the social fabric, they don’t have a strong sense of belonging and security, at least with those who they take advantage of.
    In Japan, individualism is rare since harmony is paramount. Relationships and the group are paramount. Trust is high. Competition is subservient to collaboration. So trusting the Japanese makes more sense than leaving one’s camera alone in the U.S. or in Costa Rica, which I visited last month. Great people there but severe poverty and bars on most windows. Also an immigrant lower class.
    Creating a culture of trust works most of the time, but we need to protect ourselves from people who prefer win-lose cheating to win-win support.

  11. Paul Krissel  February 23, 2012

    Thanks for the link to the article. Creating a trusting environment in any endeavor is difficult in the individualist culture of the US, compared to collectivist cultures. I don’t hold out much hope for short term change in US culture. Witness the bizarre badmouthing of Europe during the current political debates for the very reason that they do some things (like health) collectively. However, we can help groups we are working with to increase the trust between them. It starts at the top. The CEO, or senior leadership of the organization we are working with must demonstrate trust in the group and the process. They must be willing to demonstrably and credibly give real decision making authority and control to the group. The CEO needs to demonstrate humility as a partner with the group, attend all relevant functions, and set the standard of trust by their own example. They will likely have that trust tested, and they must not overreact when that happens. Long term, sustained, credible demonstration of trust from the leadership is necessary to overcome skepticism and gradually build a true trusting environment. People must not fear retaliation for their participation, and that comes from credibility and integrity at the top.

  12. Lillian Tsai  February 23, 2012

    Well said, Glen and Paul. As someone who’s been conducting a whole ton of focus groups lately, I’m discovering that organizations with trust issues start at the top. Fear of retaliation and/or losing their jobs in this downturn is causing a paralysis which is impacting morale, productivity and of course, this translates to the bottom line results. Good discussion about individualist vs. collectivist behaviors, which by the way, describes (most) men and women in America.

  13. Jackie Barretta  February 23, 2012

    I agree with all these comments. However, I have a difficult time accepting that the U.S. can never have people who are as trustworthy as Japan because we’re individualists. I don’t have the stats, but I believe there are individualist countries that have far lower crime rates and less legislation that the U.S., perhaps Sweden and Norway. I do believe that increasing the legislation,as we’re so apt to do, decreases individuals’ likelihood of being trustworthy, for the reasons outlined in the article. Any thoughts on how we can reverse the trend in the U.S.?

  14. Lillian Tsai  February 23, 2012

    I don’t think that we should lump everyone in the U.S. as being individualists and untrustworthy. Research states that the US is the most individualistic country in the world. I think that we are perhaps also one of the few (if any) countries that is made up of mostly immigrants. And whenever you have people coming together from different cultures, backgrounds, values systems, beliefs, attitudes, etc that are different and even opposite or counter intuitive from each other, there will be conflict and a lack of trust. Add to that: fear of the unknown, competition for resources (jobs, food, social services, power, etc.) and you’ve got a perfect storm if you will for stereotyping, prejudice, bias, mistrust and misunderstanding. How do we reverse this? education. One organization at a time. That’s perhaps why I’m doing what I’m doing – I believe that at our core, every human being is a good person and we mean well. Society, the media, our role models, socio- economic status and our social programming makes us otherwise. e.g. children by age 5 are already programmed in the U.S. to NOT notice color in humans.

  15. Glen Fahs  February 23, 2012

    Thanks, Lillian. Yes, generalizations provide useful perspective on
    patterns, acknowledging that the U.S. is so diverse that there is more
    variety than commonality, Still, understanding America’s problem helps us
    have realistic expectations concerning why becoming like a Scandanavian
    county is not going to happen.

    But yes, whatever the barriers, education helps, and we can get better.

    Further, addressing Jackie’s question of how we get improvement, the more
    inclusive and caring we are, the more we listen in depth, the more we
    praise, the more we value differences and resolve conflicts constructively,
    the more trust we will earn. Trusting is better than distrusting and is the
    foundation of team work, but let’s not let the con artists, abusers and
    manipulators see us as naïve and weak. Especially in important matters and
    when money is involved, we need explicit agreements and careful

    I work with terrific attorneys, but many in the legal field make things so
    complex and bureaucratic, that legal conflict is inevitable. One of the
    world’s leading crisis management consultants, who a decade ago wanted a $1
    million upfront to provide help, said the keep the lawyers out of the room
    when responding to a disaster such as a plane crash. If you tell the
    victims and their families how horrible you feel in a sincere way, offer
    money without conditions and ask how else you might help recovery and
    future prevention, you will end of paying out a tenth of what organizations
    pay who say, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to discuss this with my lawyers.”

    If we care, take responsibility and team up with others, they will trust us
    and accept a symbolic reward. If they view us as hiding, evading
    responsibility and playing power games, they will make us suffer as much as
    they can.

  16. Eli Sopow  February 27, 2012

    Jackie, I agree and have seen plenty of examples of their being an inverse relationship between trust and the number of rules and restrictions. Centralized control and micro-managing essentially is sending a message that “I don’t trust you to think for yourself.” The science of complex adaptive systems argues for “good enough planning” (a few key objectives), “self-organization” (giving employees a few basic parameters and then plenty of room for thinking of creative solutions, and even “mistakes”). Out of that emerges a far more innovative and successful process than mechanistically treating people like a cog on a tightly engineered wheel.

    It’s always interesting how some gravitate to the idea that allowing more freedom and fewer rules simple allows slackers and malcontents to have their way. Sure, there’s always a small percentage of those around. But the upside is that creating an honest environment of trust, an open two-way street and not a narrow alley of one-way traffic, usually results in happier, healthier, and far more productive workplaces.

    On your above comparisons of crime rates by country, be very cautious of stats. It is a fact that America has higher homicide rates than many Western countries including my own, Canada. But each country has different definitions for many crimes and no country collects crime data in the same way, making accurate comparisons very difficult. We share the border with you, have a democratically-elected government, but I would argue very different cultures. We both strongly believe in free enterprise but in Canada the tough banking laws have positioned them among the top three most stable in the world. Our homicide rate per 100,000 is about seven time lower than the US, but we also have some of the toughest gun control laws in the world. So, it’s a very complex topic.

  17. Paul Boris  March 14, 2012

    I agree – the speed of the leader determines the speed of the pack. A leader’s behavior is clearly a motivation and example to those around them – for good or ill. I think many “leaders” look to laws and rules as a way to define how they can stay out of trouble by working around them, with whole industries built on this premise. To avoid diving into a political debate, I’ll avoid the man’s name but there is currently a wealthy businessman out there promoting the fact that the wealthy should “pay their fare share” in taxes. At the exact same time he has a team of employees fighting the IRS tooth and nail to avoid paying taxes. Leaders lead – even when leading is complicated. At the same time, his equally wealthy younger friend (almost half his age) convinced him to donate a large portion of his wealth to improve the lot of others. When we spend so much time and effort finding ways to work within the gaps of the laws, despite our stated and high-profile public persona, we create confusion, and trust deteriorates in the confusion. As the trust deteriorates, we think writing more rules will drive proper behavior and it simply adds cost while providing more gaps for questionable behavior.

    Take this back to the logical origin, those who influence youth are where the issue begins. I would speculate the Japanese don’t steal the cameras as it would bring shame to the family. We seem to have lost that level of leadership – at the family level. As a result, we have lost some of the foundational components that make this kind of behavior pervasive.

    Few people trust Congress. What if we scrapped ALL the ethics rules and wrote one paragraph. “we will give you $1M/yr in salary, $1M/yr for undefined personal expenses (booze, prostitutes, donations – don’t care), $1M for travel expenses, $1M for office expenses, and an extra $1M for the heck of it. If you so much as bend down and take $0.01 off the street, you will serve a mandatory 10 years in a federal prison”. One paragraph and just over $2B in “costs”, simplified enforcement, clear communication that we trust they will understand the spirit of the law – how would this simplification of rules impact our legislative process ? By the way, if you have ever met with folks who work for DoD contractors, it is about that simple. We held a large customer meeting at our headquarters and there was a fishbowl, literally, on the lunch buffet. As people grabbed their food, they threw $5 into the bowl. This looked bizarre, so I asked. Yes, they are required to pay for their own lunch NO MATTER WHERE or how it happens. We had to tally the money, apply it to our expense and send a report to the contractor. Seemed pretty simple, and everyone knew what it meant.


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