Illustrating different applications of the concept of trust

While the core topic of this blog is managing trust, one recurring theme that serves as a sort of preliminary consideration to trust management is making sense of trust as a fundamental concept and, especially, understanding the differences among the many ways in which the term is applied in general and scholarly usage. The recent appearance of several independent written items — each of which emphasize trust, but with very different perspectives — provides a helpful illustration of some of the more common ways trust is perceived in common usage, including trust in technical competence, trust in the intentions of others, and trust as a moral, cultural, or societal characteristic. These perspectives are often considered together as complementary conceptions, but seem in some cases to compensate for each other, such as when evaluating the trustworthiness of a given entity.

A preliminary challenge to discussing trust at all is arriving at a suitable conception of the term, appropriate for the context and consistent with the prevailing theories on trust and definitions of the word that these theories assign. Definitions of trust vary widely among scholarly treatments of the term and in familiar business usage, leading many authors to characterize a common definition of trust as elusive (Gambetta, 1988; Kramer, 2006). Providing a semantically precise definition of trust can prove especially challenging given the tendency to substitute attributes of organizational trust such as confidence, predictability, or reliability (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995; Luhmann, 1988) for trust itself. Trust has been defined as tantamount to placing a bet (Coleman, 1990; Sztompka, 1999); as confidence in the expectation of future actions (Misztal, 1996), whether attributed to a given party as trustee or in society overall (Barber, 1983); or, in the contexts of mutual exchanges, as simply a set of expectations shared by all parties (Zucker, 1986). The terms reliability, confidence, and expectations feature prominently in numerous conceptions of trust, both within and outside organizational contexts, but these definitions offer no insight into the relational nature of trust between truster and trustee, or to the basis of that trust, and so are insufficient to provide workable definitions for trust in any of the disciplines in which the concept is studied. A key distinction articulated repeatedly in research and theories on trust is that risk must be present for trust to exist, and more specifically that trust is the willingness to take risk (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995).

If no single definition seems able to satisfy the many contexts in which trust is brought into play, then perhaps multi-faceted presentations of the concept can provide the flexibility lacking in more succinct but ultimately unsatisfactory characterizations. Bernard Barber offers a concise general definition of trust as “expectation of the persistence and fulfillment of the natural and the moral social orders” (1983, p. 9). Beyond this overarching statement, Barber offers two additional definitions that he suggests have more explicatory value in social relationships: first, “trust as the expectation of technically competent role performance,” and second, “the expectation that some others in our social relationships have moral obligations and responsibility to demonstrate a special concern for other’s interests above their own” (Barber, 1983, p. 14). These two themes, separately or together, have been applied in subsequent sociological discussions about trust, including the central aspect of role expectations in Adam Seligman’s examination of trust as an essential public good in modern society (Seligman, 1997). Barber’s multi-part definition of trust is reflected in some popular management literature, such as Reina and Reina’s separation of transactional trust into competence, contractual, and communication dimensions — what the authors respectively term “trust of capability,” “trust of character,” and “trust of disclosure” (2006, p. 14). Concern for the trustor’s interests, which Barber terms “fiduciary obligation” (1983, p. 15) has antecedents in many early organizational management concepts, and occupies a significant position in modern business principles such as principal agent theory and stakeholder theory. Barber’s separate consideration of the performance of a trustee and its motivation for the actions it chooses also broadens the applicability of his conceptions of trust, with the potential to explain the sort of system or institutional trust and its reliance on expert knowledge that Luhmann (1979), among others, set apart from interpersonal trust.


Barber, B. (1983). Logic and the limits of trust. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Coleman, J. S. (1990). Foundations of social theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. New York, NY: Free Press.

Gambetta, D. (1988). Can we trust trust? In D. Gambetta (Ed.), Trust: Making and breaking cooperative relations (pp. 213-237). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.

Kramer, R. M. (2006). Organizational trust: Progress and promise in theory and research. In R. M. Kramer (Ed.), Organizational trust (pp. 1-17). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Luhmann, N. (1988). Familiarity, confidence, trust: Problems and alternatives. In D. Gambetta (Ed.), Trust: Making and breaking cooperative relations (pp. 94-107). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.

Luhmann, N. (1979). Trust and power: Two works by Niklas Luhmann. Chichester, England: John Wiley.

Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. The Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709-734.

Misztal, B. A. (1996). Trust in modern societies. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

Reina, D. S., & Reina, M. L. (2006). Trust and betrayal in the workplace (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Seligman, A. B. (1997). The problem of trust. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sztompka, P. (1999). Trust: A sociological theory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Zucker, L. G. (1986). Production of trust: Institutional sources of economic structure, 1840-1920. Research in Organizational Behavior, 8, 53-111.