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The Virtue of Trust…Earned Then Confirmed

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard M. Jacobs 
September 3, 2019

For at least two millennia, it has been argued  that people build virtue into their character and demonstrate it in their conduct. 2019 research by Sucher and Gupta indicates, in contrast,  that administrators earn trust by demonstrating themselves trustworthy.

Five dimensions of trust

Administrators earn trust in five ways:

  • They begin by exhibiting competence (demonstrated skill before and/or after becoming an administrator) and legitimacy (having obtained the position through a rightful process). These two dimensions construct the foundation of trustworthiness.


  • Administrators build upon that foundation as they exhibit three additional dimensions of trust: motives (whose interests are being served), means (how administrators go about achieving goals) and impact (owning the impact of the decisions made upon others’ lives). Each dimension is situational, requiring administrators to decide which is needed and when, given particular circumstances. In addition, the more administrators exhibit these additional dimensions of trust, the more they earn it.

Once administrators earn trust, they must continue exhibiting those additional dimensions. Why? Trust generates a bond with stakeholders; it’s one that’s easily and quickly fractured, perhaps without even realizing it.

Three exemplars of trust

Sucher and Gupta identify the late-Katharine Graham, Washington Post (WaPo) publisher, and Mary Barra, General Motors CEO, as exemplars of private-sector administrators, each of whom earned this virtue in different ways.

Following the death of her charismatic husband in 1963, Graham inherited a majority stake of the WaPo organization. Called an, “Ignorant intruder,” many stakeholders perceived Graham as neither competent nor legitimate. Graham herself wondered whether she was up to the challenge. Yet, knowing she had to earn trust, Graham exhibited competence and legitimacy through her personal approach. Success evidenced itself not only on WaPo’s bottom line but also when Graham became the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

In contrast, Barra possessed competence but garnered legitimacy during her ascent up GM’s hierarchy. Eventually breaking its glass ceiling, Barra demonstrated both competence and legitimacy before being named CEO and continues to this day to be trustworthy through the ethical leadership she provides WaPo.

Yet, Sucher and Gupta observe, “While a legitimate process is important in gaining trust, trust can ultimately be won without it.”


Sucher and Gupta offer an example from the co-founder of Rent the Runway (RtR), Jennifer Hyman. In 2008, Hyman’s motive was to rectify a marketplace inequity: Brides couldn’t rent wedding gowns and women couldn’t rent formal gowns the same way men could rent tuxedos.

From the beginning, Hyman demonstrated competence and legitimacy at RtR. But she earned trust by her motive and means as she addressed a workplace inequity. At the time, RtR’s salaried employees received better benefits than hourly employees. Equalizing leave and sabbatical packages, Hyman effected greater equity and increased productivity. Despite the obstacles, in 2018 RtR boasted 9+ million customers and then in March 2019, RtR’s valuation surpassed $1 billion, boasting a 100% retention among working moms.

In contrast to these three exemplars of trust, PcW (2019) found that during 2018 more private sector CEOs were dismissed for ethical lapses than either poor bottom lines or conflicts with boards. Why? Untrustworthy administrators negatively impact their organizations. These effects include lower employee job performance, overall job satisfaction and commitment to their organizations, as explained in a 2001 study by Dirks & Ferrin.

In contrast to all of those CEOs, Margaret Graham, Mary Barra and Jennifer Hayman earned trust—each in her own way—and had a positive impact upon their organization. More substantively, none of the three betrayed stakeholder trust.

Trust in public administration

Prior to being hired, most public administrators demonstrate competence and legitimacy. Over the long term, critical to earning stakeholder trust will require demonstrating those three additional dimensions of trust—motives, means, and impact—what Sucher and Gupta call the, “Ethical domain of trust.”

ASPA’s Code of Ethics and Practices invokes the word trust once, relating this virtue to integrity and pinpointing nine ways that public administrators earn it. Trustworthy public administrators exhibit the ethical domain of trust by:

  • Exhibiting integrity, courage, compassion, benevolence and optimism.
  • Being truthful and honest.
  • Resisting pressures to compromise ethical integrity and principles.
  • Supporting others who are subject to similar pressures.
  • Accepting individual responsibility for their actions and the consequences.
  • Promoting the common good.
  • Guarding against using their position for personal gain or to advance personal or private interests.
  • Zealously guarding against conflict of interest or its appearance.
  • Conducting official acts without partisanship or favoritism.

As public administrators confront ethical dilemmas, they undoubtedly will make some tough decisions. From an ethical perspective, success will depend ultimately upon public administrators continuously exhibiting the motives, means and impact associated with stakeholder trust.

Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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