Have you ever wondered why we sometimes end up trusting the wrong people?

A friend of mine had his trust betrayed a number of years ago by someone who wanted to merge their respective businesses. They had verbally agreed to a 50/50 equity split in a new company and, on that basis, spent months preparing, including incurring significant legal fees to make it happen. At the 11th hour the terms were unilaterally modified by the other party and my friend pulled the pin on the deal. Based on what he told me at the time, it was not a pleasant experience and has noticeably made him more careful about who he trusts.

We’ve all been there. Trusted the wrong person. Unsurprisingly, all trust involves risk and every now and then our prediction about another’s likelihood to help or hurt us regrettably ends up hurting us.

There are lots of other examples of misplaced trust. Highly educated and otherwise savvy voters sometimes choose politicians who, based on their track record, are undeserving of our trust. Or well-qualified and experienced employees who sometimes decide to work for toxic managers or companies that have long discarded their moral compass.

So, why do otherwise smart people end up trusting the wrong people?

As you read this post to find some answers to that question, I invite you to consider two things:

      • Which of the following reasons you can relate to based on your personal experiences; and
      • If there is a possibility you may be leveraging any of the reasons to encourage the trust of others.

Perceptions of trust can be distorted by power and status

We tend to assume those in power or with high status in our society have our best interests at heart, especially if we have played some part in choosing them. Since we generally prefer to think of ourselves as smart (rather than the opposite), we believe the trust and associated hopes we place on those we admire equate to smart choices. After all, it’s comforting to think we live in a society characterised by fairness and meritocracy. Surely those who hold power and status must be ‘good’ people right?

One doesn’t have to look very far today to recognise that powerful people can and do use all their influence to hide the truth, silence critics, and cement an artificial image of integrity. Some abhor transparency and avoid at all costs any mechanisms designed to enforce accountability. There is a saying by historian Lord Acton that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When those in power gain too much trust, they tend to abuse it.

It’s very hard to speak up against people who are rich, powerful, and famous. When we admire or respect someone, we feel morally committed towards them. We see them as some kind of role model and it can be devastating if someone abuses that trust.

Trust, but verify – Ronald Reagan

Advanced social skills can harbour immorality

The more trustworthy a business or group appears to be, the more vulnerable it likely becomes to individuals who will try to take advantage, precisely because the business or group is perceived as ethical, healthy and efficient.

Those who are unethical, lazy or corrupt seek out a business or group that is hard-working, honest and naïve. For example, burglars tend to thrive in a community where people leave their homes unlocked. But as we become less naïve and more alert to these types of threats, these types of individuals need to rely on more sophisticated deception skills to fool us. They become highly skilled socially to deceptively convince others they can be trusted.

The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool – Stephen King

Our own instincts can be a powerful force

Since the dawn of civilisation, our brains have evolved to rely on our intuitive impressions of others. Back then, it was pretty easy to know whether someone should be trusted. Our ancestors lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers where everyone knew each other very well. Our perceptions of character were intuitive, but accurate and predictive. If you happened to be untrustworthy, your reputation would clearly reflect this and you had nowhere to hide.

While this may have worked well in those types of settings, as we developed more sophisticated societies over time, humans were forced to interact and trade with complete strangers. This forced our ancestors to develop interpersonal strategies to both elicit and assess people’s trust, even when minimal character information was available about the other person. Inevitably, this process complicated things, leading to the proliferation of untrustworthy actors, corresponding improvements in our capacity to accurately assess trustworthiness and counter-measures designed to mask it.

To make matters worse, we exhibit a stubborn desire to avoid being wrong. This means we’ll go to some lengths to ignore our mistakes, even when we may have openly miscalculated on someone else’s trustworthiness.

What loneliness is more lonely than distrust? – George Eliot

Our personality can drive our propensity to trust

Our propensity to trust affects our tendency to trust others, and the likelihood that someone is trusted. This propensity is shaped by several factors including our genetic makeup and our lived experience from a very young age.

Research suggests that agreeable people are generally more willing to trust strangers, and extreme agreeableness results in a propensity to be overly naïve and trust the wrong person. At the other end of the spectrum, highly cynical or sceptical people will distrust even when they shouldn’t. If we consider our families, work colleagues and others in our personal networks, I’m sure we can find examples of both extremes.

So, who should we trust? Generally speaking, people who are predictable, reliable, conscientious, and emotionally stable (often referred to as boring types). Unfortunately, this contrasts with the people we tend to trust – charismatic, temperamental, entertaining and socially skilled people, even if they happen to embody unattractive traits such as narcissism.

Learning to trust is one of life’s most difficult tasks – Isaac Watts


Ultimately, trust will always involve some form of uncertainty and risk. To trust is to leave one’s self vulnerable to another, otherwise there would be no need for trust. Our ability to effectively and accurately trust others requires a keen sense of wanting to better understand the trust process and what is important when assessing trustworthiness.

Were you able to recognise any of these factors in your lived experience of trusting the wrong person? Do any of your behaviours suggest you may be that wrong person?

What do you think?

When you are ready, here are a few ways we can work together:

1.   For individuals, work with me on a one-to-one basis to ensure you are demonstrating your trustworthiness to customers and other key stakeholders so you can capture and leverage the value of trust.

 2. For organisations & teams that want to ensure they are consistently embedding and demonstrating trustworthiness to all key stakeholders, undertake an assessment of current performance, identify any gaps and utilise our expertise to drive improvements. Reach out for a private conversation.

 Use this link to book a quick and confidential conversation with me


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