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Reflections: Understanding my neighbor

By Georgina Veldhorst

Trust is a word that receives significant attention in our families, churches and organizations. Trust is complicated, and it is hard to define. When a high level of trust is present, we tend not to think about it. There is predictability and comfort. Trust can also be misplaced, as seen in the recent financial crisis, when many of us blindly trusted that others had our best interest in mind; we may have felt deceived when this proved not to be so. When distrust builds, we become more aware of our level of trust; our confidence wanes and anxiety increases.

So what is trust? Our group discussed Stephen R. Covey’s book entitled The Speed of Trust. Covey describes trust as having two main aspects: character and competence. Character is further subdivided into the concepts of integrity and intent, while competence is about capability and results. He then uses this framework to examine trust at the levels of self, relationships, organizations, markets and society. Covey’s “5 Waves of Trust” model is derived from the ripple-effect metaphor that illustrates the interdependent nature of trust and how it flows from inside oneself outward.

The Waves of Trust

Self Trust: We trust ourselves when we have integrity, good intentions, appropriate credentials and a good track record.

Relationship Trust: The more you trust others, the more you are trusted in return. Covey attributes trust in relationships to thirteen behaviors. Five are related to character: Talk straight, demonstrate respect, create transparency, right wrongs and show loyalty. Five others are competence related: Deliver results, get better, confront reality, clarify expectations and practice accountability. The last three behaviors relate to both character and competence: Listen first, keep commitments and extend trust.

Organizational Trust: This is defined as a culture of honesty, where people can make and admit mistakes and have the courage to deal with the tough issues. Organizational trust increases through having and developing the people-talent needed for the work, continuously improving, delivering results, keeping commitments and creating value.

Market Trust: This is about the customer/client perspective and the organization’s reputation. People are looking for consistency between promises and delivery. They make their judgments about an organization’s consistency based on what they read, see and hear from formal and informal sources, including the organization’s employees.

Societal Trust:  A high-trust society results in more for each individual. This kind of trust is built when individual members contribute and act as responsible citizens, creating value instead of destroying it and giving back instead of taking.  In our interdependent world, we need to think about contributing and being responsible on a local, national and global level.

One wave of trust that Covey doesn’t highlight, but which is essential to add, is God trust. Trust in God is about trusting one greater than ourselves to watch over and preserve our lives. The more we trust God, the less we overcontrol our lives and the lives of others, which fosters greater self-trust and relational trust.


When trust starts to wane and distrust creeps in, we tend to be silent about it until the situation has progressed; then it is very difficult to talk about it and address the underlying issues. Without trust, there is a tendency toward bad decision making, as working through issues is avoided. Talking about trust requires a willingness to move into the “soft” space in our lives—within our personal relationships, our work cultures and, indeed, within society as a whole. As the economy struggles, the urge to focus on only the “hard” data and facts is inevitable. Yet doing so may mean that we avoid tackling the real issues that impede performance and organizational success.

Finally, at times mistrust may prevail. Rebuilding trust that has been damaged requires a renewal of connection; it needs to start with acknowledgment of the damage and resulting pain when trust was lost. While never easy, there are innovative approaches to assist individuals, teams and organizations to move forward, even when trust has been severely damaged or where mistrust is long standing and deep seated.

Questions for reflection:

  • Whom do you trust and who trusts you? What contributes to that trust? Whom do you mistrust and why?
  • How is trust shown in your organization? And what about mistrust—how is it shown?
  • Can you identify a situation in which your distrust is beginning to build and you need to fight the urge to withdraw, but instead to speak up more?

—Georgina Veldhorst, Class of 1990, Management Consultant, specializing in complex situations

S.M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust (New York: Free Press, 2006).

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