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Barbara Brooks Kimmel: What does the word ‘trust’ really mean?

The media’s coverage of trust is gaining momentum — but the headlines are still fuzzy. It’s not hard to find examples that talk about trust as an adjective, verb, and noun, but that all fail to frame or define for readers what the word “trust” really means.

Consider the following headlines from just a couple of days in February:

When Chicagoans Don’t Trust Police, the City Suffers, Chicago Tribune, February 3, 2016

Do You Trust Taco Bell Enough to Blindly Pre-Order a Mystery Item From Them? Probably Not. Paste Magazine, February 3, 2016

In Flint water crisis, the biggest problem to fix may be trust, Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 2016

Are Chicago’s police officers untrustworthy, or is it just that Chicago’s citizenry are scared — or both? Do you trust Taco Bell to use high quality ingredients enough to order a “mystery item?” With which stakeholders is Flint attempting to fix trust?

It’s easy to see from these examples why failing to be clear in defining trust has consequences for real people, and for stakeholder understanding.

Our three headlines don’t all point to the same problem. One might be a subject for corporate communications, others are societal, issues of brand loyalty, or ethics and compliance. But they all show that if we’re not clear in our definitions of trust, its easy to end up talking nonsense, while assuming we’re making sense and that others understand us perfectly.

Here’s a sampling of definitions of trust (the noun) from The World Database of Trust compiled by Harvey S. James Jr., PhD. He provides three pages of academic definitions, from which I’ve selected just three definitions, based on the global reputation of the author, their frequency of use, and my familiarity with the author’s work:

“Trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of that community.” – F. Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, New York, NY: Free Press, 1995, p. 26

Trust is “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor.” – R.C. Mayer, J.H. Davis, and F.D. Schoorman, “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust,” Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 1995, p. 712

Trust more narrowly defined is “the expectation that a partner will not engage in opportunistic behavior, even in the face of short-term opportunities and incentives, in the absence of control.” – B. Nooteboom, “Social Capital, Institutions and Trust,” Review of Social Economy, 65(1), 2007, p. 37

Here are two additional, albeit simple, definitions. I developed these to use in connection with both individual and organizational relationships:

Trust is a natural byproduct of strong core values,


Trust is the outcome of promises kept.  

Regardless of whether you’re a compliance and ethics practitioner, scholar, consultant, author, mother, father or Joe the Plumber, if you are going to talk or write about trust, it’ll always be helpful to start by clarifying what you mean by trust.

Here’s a glossary compiled with Charles H. Green of Trusted Advisor Associates that defines the various relational components of trust. While some may believe a glossary adds unnecessary complexity, the definitions can be an important reference when we talk about trust. 

Trust:  (the noun) is a relationship between trustor and trustee, in the case of individuals. “The level of trust is down.” In its simplest form, some might define it as the outcome of promises kept.

Trust: (the verb): To trust, or not to trust, the decision to trust, the risks of trusting.  “I trust him (or her) (or them).”  The field of psychology focuses on this definition.

Trustor: (noun): The one taking the risk, the one choosing to trust — or not to trust. “He trusts them; me, I’m usually more hesitant about it.”

Trustee: (noun) One to whom something is entrusted or the acceptor of the trust. “She’s the one in the group to trust.”

Trustworthy: (adjective) Deserving of confidence based on ethics, competence, dependability and reliability. “He’s highly trustworthy.” “That company is trustworthy.”

Trusting: (gerund) the trust action taken by the trustor. “I’m nervous about trusting them.”

Propensity to trust: An inclination to trust people or institutions. “I leave my car unlocked in the driveway.” “I trust my doctor with my life.” The fields of sociology and group psychology focus on this definition.

(Readers may also find Seth Godin’s recent thoughts on relational trust useful.)

*     *     *

I would like to thank the following colleagues for their input on this post: Charlie Green, Donna Boehme, Bob Easton, Bob Vanourek, Jeremy Willinger, Nan Russell and Davia Temin.

Your suggestions about how we can improve this glossary are welcome.


Barbara Brooks Kimmel is the CEO and cofounder of Trust Across America-Trust Around the World whose mission is to help organizations build trust. Now in its sixth year, the program’s proprietary FACTS® Framework ranks and measures the trustworthiness of over 2000 U.S. public companies on five quantitative indicators of trust. She’s also the editor of the award winning TRUST INC. book series and the executive editor of TRUST! Magazine. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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  1. Thank you for this article Barbara. Trust and sadly more often its absence is at the heart of so many ethical failings in business. Your statement – "trust is the outcome of promises kept" particularly resonates as it suggests that trust has a tangible value; we all know of or have experienced high-trust environments were the speed of transaction is rapid and sadly the converse. It may seem wrong to see trust as having economic value but it most certainly can have. Aristotle talked about who is the greater: "Me for trusting you or you for being worthy of my trust?" Aristotle was very clear in that the answer is me, because by extending trust we expose ourselves to risk, but this is clearly a risk worth taking for both the individual and the enterprise.

  2. After living and working in three continents and eight countries spanning from Oil& Gas to small commercial entities, I came up with my own definition of TRUST. This definition of mine solidified and cemented with events from 9/11, 2008 financial meltdown and not excluding infamous Bernie Madoff debacle.

    "Trust is substantially a frame of mind, a psychological state. It is not just the outcome of any proven rational calculation. It’s a mindset, a vital and important component of “animal, tribal and affinity spirits and/or instincts” that drives us into an action or leaves us with inaction."

  3. Hi Chris. Thank you for your thoughtful response. There is nothing wrong about seeing trust having economic value. High trust organizations have the advantages of less employee turnover, higher employee engagement, faster innovation and decision making. The economic values are tremendous. Business leaders are waking up to this, albeit slowly. Those who are already out of the starting gate are reaping the rewards.

  4. Barbara – I'm impressed to see Harvey James' Database of Trust, Charles Green's glossary and, of course, your continued promotion of a comprehensive understanding of how to embody trust in business and life. I am honored to be part of the community you've built around the world who attempt to advance trust as a guiding principle. – Nadine

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