Two Kinds of Trust Violations, Two Very Different Responses

September 15, 2023

We're still reading Peter Kim's How Trust Works, and I'm intrigued by his notion that there are basically two kinds of trust violations, and that people respond to each violation in very different ways.

In Kim's framing, trust violations can either be "violations of competence" or "violations of integrity," and, crucially, different people can perceive the same violation in different ways. For example, how someone understands a breach of trust can influence whether or not they continue to trust the transgressor.

In general, a violation of competence, where one commits an error of some kind, doesn't tend to reduce trust. People think that if you had demonstrated some kind of competence before, "Well, anyone can make a mistake." If you just apologize for your violation of competence, everyone can move on.

However, something that's perceived as an integrity violation or breach of trust is different. People think a violation of integrity represents a fundamental character flaw, a violation so serious that the offender should not be trusted going forward.

For example, I usually make a latte for my wife every morning while I make breakfast for the kids. But say one morning I neglect to make her her coffee... My wife could either view my transgression as a mere violation of competence ("It's odd that you forgot to do this thing you do every day.") or as an alarming violation of integrity ("What kind of monster could fail to make me my latte, which is so obviously a crucial part of my morning routine???")

What's interesting is research shows that an integrity violation is very hard to correct. Even if someone apologizes and vows to do better, trust remains broken. In fact, if you are guilty of an integrity trust violation, your best strategy is to lie and deny any wrongdoing: according to the research, while an apology won't help your case, some people might believe you if you deny everything. This has disturbing implications, to say the least, for trust-building work.

When we think about how to build trust, we often think about it from the perspective of the transgressor—how can someone who has violated trust work to repair it? But it's also useful to think about restoring trust from the point of view of the transgressed. What does it take for someone to once again view a violator who has made amends in a favorable light?

What do you think? Let us know.

This blog post originally appeared in ARTT's Trust Issues newsletter. Sign up for our email newsletter to get updates in your inbox twice a month.