When Trust Is Easily Broken, and When It’s Not
By;Michael Haselhuh, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Laura Kray, Jessica A. Kennedy
“I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself,” Mr. Darcy tells Elizabeth Bennet in a pivotal moment in Pride and Prejudice, before famously admitting: “My good opinion once lost is lost for ever.”
Plenty of people would agree with Mr. Darcy on matters of trust: that trust is difficult to gain, easy to break, and tough to repair once broken. Or they’d say that a major violation of trust is more likely to lead to a broken relationship than a minor infraction.
But our research shows that although trust violations can rupture relationships, the impact of a violation depends less on the type of transgression and more on the mindset of the trusting party.
Some people believe personal attributes, such as negotiation ability and moral character, are stable. Others believe that these attributes are malleable.
Here’s how these beliefs work. Imagine two job candidates negotiating their respective signing bonuses. The first candidate spends a great deal of time preparing for the negotiation, doing her homework and practicing with her friends. The second exerts little effort preparing, instead deciding to “wing it.” The two candidates negotiate, and the first achieves a $10,000 signing bonus, whereas the second attains a bonus of $8,000. Consider the effort they invested and their outcomes. Who is the better negotiator?
Some might think that the first candidate is superior — she not only attained a great outcome, but she also worked hard to develop skills that will help her in the future. People who think the first negotiator is better are likely to perceive that negotiation ability is a skill that can be learned over time. Others, however might think that the second candidate is the better negotiator. After all, he was able to attain a reasonable outcome while putting forth little effort — he must have an innate ability to negotiate. Individuals who give this response tend to believe that key attributes are fixed, and that people either do or do not have the ability in a given area to succeed.
We’ve found that these mindsets play an important role in how people react to being deceived in a negotiation. Individuals with a fixed mindset “lock in” to an initial view of others. If they believe that someone is trustworthy, they fixate on that view and believe that they know what this person is like. Even in the face of disconfirming evidence, their initial beliefs are slow to change. As a result, someone with a fixed mindset is more inclined to maintain trust in a negotiation counterpart who disappoints them. (The converse is also true. Someone with a fixed mindset who forms the initial impression that someone is untrustworthy will be slow to update that belief as well.)
In one study, we tested this effect with 94 MBA students. The students completed a negotiation, and immediately afterward, they reported how much they trusted their counterpart. Then, we informed negotiators about the full facts of the case. As it turns out, many of those negotiators had been deceived. How did their perceptions of trust change? It turns out that people with growth mindsets did what we might expect — they paid attention to the new information. After learning that they had been deceived, they revised their beliefs and trusted their counterparts less. People with fixed mindsets, however, discounted the new information and maintained their trust in their counterparts.
In a follow-up study with 258 participants, we explored this result in more detail. When we presented people with information suggesting that someone they had trusted had deceived them, we found that people with fixed mindsets tended to give the transgressor the benefit of the doubt, explaining away or excusing the deceptive behavior. People with growth mindsets integrated the new information and revised their perceptions (and trusted that person much less).
In much of our research, we focus on how people react to a single violation, but we have also found that mindsets influence trust following multiple violations. As you might expect, after many violations, people with both fixed and growth mindsets update their beliefs — and stop trusting the transgressor. It just takes people with fixed mindsets longer to get there.
Of course, there are often good reasons to forgive others and give people a second chance. And our research suggests that although people with growth mindsets are quick to lose trust in those who’ve deceived them, they’re also more accepting of apologies and promises to change. Individuals with fixed mindsets, though slower to lose trust in others, are much less likely to believe an apology and less inclined to think that a deceiver will change.
But if you’ve broken the trust of someone stuck in a fixed mindset, you do have hope. First, recognize that they may be locked into their beliefs about you. If you have changed or your organization has changed, you will have a hard time convincing people with fixed mindsets. When you communicate with these people, you will be more effective if you first convince them that people can change. (Sharing past examples of how other people have changed will help.) You may also have to bombard them with persistent and overwhelming evidence that you’ve changed – subtle changes may not be noticed.
So is one approach better than the other? The data suggest that a growth mindset is preferable — unfortunately, deception is common, and if you are deceived it is wise to update your perceptions quickly. You can always change your opinion of someone again, if they prove themselves more reliable in the future.
Moreover, a large body of research has found that believing that change is possible has a number of benefits. People with a growth mindset are more likely to overcome negative stereotypes, are more creative, and ultimately tend to be more successful.
So if you tend to believe people’s characters are stable and fixed, try to notice those times they surprise you. Everyone can change – including you.
Michael Haselhuhn is an Assistant Professor of Management and the A. Gary Anderson Distinguished Faculty Scholar at the University of California Riverside School of Business Administration.
Maurice E. Schweitzer is the Cecilia Yen Koo Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He is a coauthor of Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both (Crown Business, 2015).
Laura Kray is a professor and the Warren E. and Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley.
Jessica A. Kennedy is an assistant professor of management in Organization Studies at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.