Trust and Personality – Are some people hardwired to trust more than others?

January 26, 2023 Randy Conley

One of the things I love most about the field of trust is its depth and breadth. Trust is multi-dimensional—and for a trust geek like me, it’s easy (and fun!) to get lost exploring all its nooks and crannies.

Early childhood and life experiences, beliefs, values, gender, nationality, culture, age, and personality are among the factors that influence both how we view trust and our willingness to trust others. Of those, personality is probably the one factor that I get asked about most often when I’m helping leaders build trust with others.

Personality, like trust, is a concept with many components. I’ve learned that when people ask me how their personality shapes their view on trust, they’re usually wondering if they are hardwired to respond to trust in a specific way.

The study of personality—or more specifically, temperament—dates back more than 2,500 years to when Hippocrates first described four basic temperament types: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. The study of personality has continued over the centuries and research has deepened and expanded our knowledge. There are many popular personality typing systems in use today, but these systems tend to be too complex for most people to apply them in their moments of need. Just this month, we launched Essential Motivators™, which teaches a four-pattern framework to help people discover how their pattern shapes their core psychological needs, values, talents, and behaviors so that they can better understand themselves and others.

Now back to the question of how our personality influences our willingness to trust. Are some people hardwired to be more trusting than others?

First, we have to explore what’s called our propensity (willingness) to trust. It’s our natural, default approach to extending trust to others.

Think of a person’s willingness to trust others as a continuum. On one end there is the position of “I automatically trust everyone,” and the opposite end is “I don’t trust anyone.” Depending on the situation and context (the person being trusted, the level of risk, potential for having our trust betrayed, etc.), we can be anywhere on that spectrum. In one situation we may willingly extend trust, and in a different situation we may withhold it. However, in our average, everyday interactions with people, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of that scale.

One of the key factors in our willingness to extend trust is the other person’s trustworthiness. A person’s trustworthiness can be assessed by how well their actions align with the ABCDs of trust:

  • ABLE – Demonstrates Competence
  • BELIEVABLE – Acts with Integrity
  • CONNECTED – Cares about Others
  • DEPENDABLE – Honors Commitments

By comparing the four Essential Motivator patterns with the four elements of trust, one can begin to see how they influence our willingness to trust. Let’s look at the four patterns of Essential Motivators in a little more detail:

Fire pattern – People of the Fire pattern tend to be improvisers who value the freedom to choose the next action and respond to the needs of the moment. They seek impact, results, and solutions that will work now. What elements of trust do you think people of the Fire pattern find most trustworthy? They are more likely to trust people who are Able and Dependable—who are competent in what they do, have the right knowledge, skills, and expertise for the situation, and get things done.

Earth pattern – People of the Earth pattern want to have a place to contribute. They desire responsibility, accountability, structure, and stability, and they want to protect and preserve. Because of these essential motivators, people of the Earth pattern extend trust more willingly to people who are Believable in their actions. They are triggered to more naturally trust those who are honest and ethical (not that other patterns aren’t as well), as well as those who model Dependability by following through on commitments no matter what.

Air pattern – People of the Air pattern tend to be theorists and want to know the theories behind everything before taking action. They value competence and mastery, and are usually oriented to logic and operating principles that provide long-term results. People who demonstrate trustworthiness through their competence (Able) are more likely to earn the trust of those of the Air pattern.

Water pattern – People of the Water pattern want to be authentic, caring, and have meaningful connections. They value meaning, purpose, identity, and seek those elements in their relationships. What element of trust do you think the Water pattern gravitates toward? Connected! People who build rapport, communicate openly, and value genuine, caring relationships earn the trust of those of the Water pattern.

When we discuss Essential Motivators, it’s important to understand that although we all tend to have a dominant pattern, each of us displays elements of all four patterns. The same goes for the ABCDs of trust. We demonstrate our trustworthiness by using behaviors that align with all four elements of trust, and we trust others who have a healthy balance of the ABCDs. So it’s not fair or appropriate to pigeonhole someone by their pattern and say they only extend trust to certain types of people—however, it is fair to say that our dominant pattern often drives our initial perceptions of another person’s trustworthiness. And what often triggers our trust in someone? When we perceive them to be just like us!

Both our Essential Motivators and the other person’s trustworthiness play a big part in how willing we are to extend our trust to them. When we understand the four patterns as well as which elements of trust each one naturally gravitates to, we are better able to communicate our own trustworthiness and have deeper, more meaningful relationships.

About the Author

Randy Conley

Randy Conley is the Vice President & Trust Practice Leader for Blanchard®. He is coauthor of Blanchard’s Building Trust training program and works with organizations around the globe, helping them build trust in the workplace. In 2022, Randy and Ken Blanchard coauthored Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, and most recently, Simple Truths of Leadership Playbook: A 52-Week Game Plan for Becoming a Trusted Servant Leader.

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