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The Opposite of Trust is Not Distrust

For more than 20 years researcher have studied the concept of trust: trust in leaders, trust in organizations, interpersonal trust, and so on. Kouzes and Posner (1995) studied interpersonal trust and its role as a key contributor to effectiveness, for example. Interestingly, some of these studies differentiate between trust (that is given) and trustworthiness (that is offered). Sometimes, just because a leader trusts someone who reports to them, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the report trusts the leader (and vice versa). The same can be true of team members.

There are some generally unmeasured factors in the giving of trust. For example, because of personality and experiences, some people are more willing to give trust than others. Organizational policies and procedures can also affect trust, as can perceived similarities or differences between the “trustee” and “trustor”. Most research looks at trust in dyads, or between two people, versus among multi-member groups or teams

Nevertheless, the research on trust show several factors are highlighted for leaders to generate trustworthiness:

  • Competence, or the ability to be effective in a role, set a course, and use influence;

  • Benevolence, meaning caring, openness, and demonstration of concern; and

  • Integrity, meaning fairness, honesty, consistency, reliability, and fulfilling promises.

More recently, researchers have been teasing apart the concepts of trust and distrust, and finding there is more complexity than expected. Fascinatingly, the opposite of trust, these researchers say, is not distrust, and these are distinct concepts, rather than on opposite ends of a spectrum. “There are elements that contribute to the growth and decline of trust, and there are elements that contribute to the growth and decline of distrust. These elements grow and develop through an individual's experiences with another in the various facet-specific transactions of multiplex relations” (Lewicki, McAllister, & Bies, 1998). In addition, both trust and distrust may be present at the same time: “it is possible for parties to both trust and distrust one another, given different experiences within the various facets of complex interpersonal relationships.”

All of this may seem overwhelming and confusing. Herb Stevenson offers a helpful article on the elements of distrust here which includes 13 high trust behaviors…that’s a LOT. What can be helpful is to pinpoint the elements where distrust has arisen, or behaviors where trust gets off track, and focus on only one or two at a time, depending on what is most relevant for you, in your leadership role, and to the people you lead.

The upshot of all this information is the importance for leaders of creating and maintaining trust among your reports, superiors, clients, partners, and stakeholders. If you’re interested in developing greater trust, or rebuilding trust after distrust has developed, please do reach out for a private complimentary conversation.


Burke, C.S., Sims, D.E., Lazzara, E.H., & Salas, E. (2007) Trust in leadership: A multi-level review and integration, The Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 18, pp. 606-632.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (1995). The leadership challenge: How to get extraordinary things done in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., & Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationships and realities. Academy Of Management Review, 23(3), 438-458. doi:10.5465/AMR.1998.926620

Steven Van De Walle & Frédérique Six (2014) Trust and Distrust as Distinct Concepts: Why Studying Distrust in Institutions is Important, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 16:2, 158-174, DOI: 10.1080/13876988.2013.785146

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