Trust-is it earned or freely offered ?

By Vivienne Liu
Research & Development Specialist

At first glance of the question, my immediate thought was, “Trust is definitely earned! Come on, that’s a no-brainer.” But…is it really that simple?

It’s true that years of experience as social beings have taught us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch—you gotta work for what you want, trust included. That’s why we see an overwhelming amount of books, journal articles, blog posts, TED talks, podcasts, and webinars centred around building trust within personal and professional relationships. 

But what many of us may have overlooked is that very rarely does our trust level for people truly start at ground zero. As a result of nature and nurture, we all vary in our baseline for trust—while some of us can easily trust strangers, others might find it difficult to trust even their own family members. Looking at it this way, we can see that trust is, to a certain extent, freely given. 

Trust, then, is neither purely earned nor completely and freely offered.

Trust is both a gift and a reward: an initial amount of trust is freely given (perhaps even before any interaction takes place) and even more trust can be earned through subsequent interactions. While we, as trust-recipients, have no control over the initial amount of freely-offered trust, we can still strengthen the trust others have in us. 

Based on Peter Scholtes’s model, where trust is the result of the giver’s belief in the receiver’s (1) benevolence and (2) aptitude, here are some tips you can use to strengthen trust in your relationships: 

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1. Commit to develop your competencies.

The first step to cultivate a belief in your competencies is to actually possess them. Get feedback from friends or mentors on your areas of improvement and commit to develop them. You can leverage the myriads of free online courses or seek out mentors who can guide you.

2. Seize opportunities to demonstrate your competencies.

Once you have developed a certain level of competency (tip: ask your friends for feedback and affirmation for confidence!), find opportunities to demonstrate them to others. This often means taking initiative to contribute in your areas of expertise. While doing so, remember that no one is mistake-proof, and you may face challenges in the process. Keep in mind that trust is dynamic and will fluctuate, so if you make a mistake, fret not! Ask for feedback, build on your mistakes, and further develop your competencies—just make sure to be accountable to the parties involved and demonstrate your commitment to development.

3. Genuinely care for others. 

Look out for those who might be going through a hard time and show your genuine concern. Encourage and reaffirm them with your continual support. Ultimately, care is reciprocal; and genuinely caring for people will not only boost the level of trust that have in you but also bring about genuine care to you in your time of need.

How are you and the people you work with strengthening your trust in each other? I’d love to hear from you at!