Sun Tzu tells us one of the key factors of a good leader is to be trustworthy. At the same time, he tells us that all of war is deception. In addition, we are to treat our troops as our children. So, how does being trustworthy factor into our leadership and ultimately our strategy?
This article will examine the factor of trust. The first discussion will define the term and show its relevance to victory. According to Robbins (2009), trust "is a positive expectation that another will not - through words, actions, or decisions - act opportunistically." This definition brings two terms into the light; risk and familiarity. To have positive expectations of someone means you have familiarity with them. This makes trust history dependent. The longer you have known someone and interacted with them, the more you can trust or not trust them according to their actions. In the event that we do not have a history with someone, we cannot trust them. What we often label "blind trust" is no more than gambling. The second term is opportunistic. This implies the risk that we make ourselves vulnerable when we trust another. Trust is not risk, it is the willingness to take the risk. If I trust someone I willingly take the risk they will hurt me.
Schindler (1993) offers five dimensions of trust: integrity, competence, consistency, loyalty, and openness. We will see that Dirks model fits this more neatly below.
There are three types of trust in organizational relationships to consider: deterrence based, knowledge based, and identification based (Robbins, 2009). Of the three, deterrence based trust is the weakest. It is based on fear of reprisal if the trust relationship is broken. It only works when one side has the power to punish the other if they don’t follow through on their promise. The second type of trust is knowledge based and it comes from the history of someone's actions. This type of trust needs information, not power. The highest form of trust is identification based. This requires an emotional connection between parties. It only occurs when parties know each other's intentions and cares for the other person's desires. This fits closely with Sun Tzu's admonition to treat your troops as your children.
We can understand trust better by looking at its basic principles (Robbins, 2009). Not trusting (mistrust) drives out trust. When we do not trust others, they will not trust us. Therefore, a strategic leader must demonstrate trust toward his or her troops in order to receive trust. The second principle is that you can regain trust through consistent trustworthy behaviors. The key to regaining trust is in how it was lost. When trust is lost due to deception, it is never fully regained. This is where we must evaluate Sun Tzu's admission that all of war is deception. He could not have been referring to deceiving his own people. Given his position and success, it is unlikely that he would not have discovered that deceiving your own people will lead to the inability to regain lost trust (something Machiavelli would never learn). The third principle is when group members do not trust one another, they will separate and not work together. Mistrusting groups will foster suspicion and not form as a team. The final principle is mistrust reduces productivity. While there is no evidence trust increases productivity, it is known to reduce it.
Modern research suggests that trustworthiness is actually a set of factors that include perceived capability, integrity, and benevolence (Dirks, 2009). Capability is the perception that a person is trustworthy in terms of being able to perform. They can do their job. Integrity is the perception that a person will adhere to sound moral values. Lastly, benevolence is the perception that a person cares about the well-being of the person who trusts them for reasons other than their own personal profit.
From this research, it is apparent why Sun Tzu would offer the advice to treat your troops like your children (with benevolence). Rather than establish benevolence as a separate factor, Sun Tzu realized that it was actually a cause for trustworthiness.
A major question that stems from these factors is whether they are interrelated, and if so, in what ways? Are they additive or interactive? You could, for example, trust that someone knows their job but not trust that they are moral in their actions.
If we are capable and competent, why is benevolence and moral actions important to trustworthiness? For the answer we have to consider why we trust someone. We may believe that a person is capable and trust in the ability to perform a task. However, unless we also trust them to make the right actions and to do so without using us as a means to their own goal fulfillment (an action which would violate Kantian ethics), we would not actually trust the person. We seek out others in which to exchange actions (do this for me and I will do something for you in the future) which requires reciprocity. If we cannot trust someone to act in a moral way, why would they honor the unwritten contract of reciprocity (a process known as Social Exchange Theory offered by Blau, 1964)? If they would not, why should we trust them? For these reasons, benevolence and integrity are required in order to maintain the social contract of reciprocity. In contrast, we must trust that a person has moral actions and trust they are benevolent, however, if we cannot trust them to be capable, we could not anticipate their contribution to our own goals.
The above describes why trusting someone's capability does not guarantee they will reciprocate. It also shows why all three elements are required for what is called trust as well as why trust is an effect rather than a cause.
Where does this lead us? While the usual discussion of trustworthiness is on how effective it makes the trustor, it also affects the performance of the trustee. When trusted, a person will receive more cooperation, information, and assistance by trustors than when trust is lacking (Dirks, 2009). In effect, when people trust you, you can get more done.
Blau, P. 1964. Exchange and power in social life. New York: Wiley
Dirks, K. T., & Skarlicki, D. P. (2009). The relationship between being perceived as trustworthy by coworkers and individual performance. Journal of Management, 35(1), 136-157. doi: 10.1177/0149206308321545
Lewicki, R. J., Tomlinson, E. C., & Gillespie, N. (2006). Models of Interpersonal Trust Development: Theoretical Approaches, Empirical Evidence, and Future Directions. Journal of Management, 32(6), 991-1022. doi: 10.1177/0149206306294405
Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2009). Organizational Behavior (13th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Schindler, P. L., & Thomas, C. C. (1993). The structure of interpersonal trust in the workplace. Psychological Reports, 73(2), 563-573.