The distinction between merit and trust

What do you base your relationships on, merit or trust? Read on for a different take on it.

Steffan Surdek
March 16, 2016

A little while ago, at a conference, I gave a presentation on team dynamics. During my presentation, someone in the audience asked for advice on what should be done to establish relationships of trust between team members.

This allowed us to discuss the important distinction between trust and merit as an axis for building our interpersonal relationships.

Before going any further, we should begin with a definition of both terms. Here are the definitions from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

noun belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.
Example: Our relationship is founded on mutual love and trust.

noun the qualities or actions that determine one's worthiness of reward or punishment.
Example: The five contestants will be judged on their own merits.

Trust-based relationships

From my point of view, trust sometimes seems a rather binary experience. We either trust someone or not; I think there is no in-between. Just think about the popular expression supporting this: “trust is earned”. When a breach of trust occurs in a relationship, it is important to know whether the relationship is based on trust or merit. Now, let me tell you what happened to me in regard to this important distinction.

Several years ago, I worked for six months with a colleague whom I truly trusted. In fact, he could have asked me absolutely anything and I would have done it without hesitation (even outside of the work context).

A few years later, our paths crossed again, and we worked together yet again. For me, our relationship was still a trustworthy one. However, I quickly found out that our relationship was different then what it used to be, and my trust was put to test more than once.

At some point, I found out that I no longer trusted that colleague, but we still had to work together. Since I had just learned the difference between merit and trust relationships, I decided to focus on the merit he brought to ours.

Merit-based relationships

The question then became: “Do I find this relationship worthy of being maintained?” And for many reasons, the answer was “Yes” at that time. Thus, I kept trying to maintain a cordial relationship, despite the discomfort I felt regarding my trust toward him.

By seeing our relationships with the eyes of merit, we can take a broader perspective when facing a situation where there is a breach of trust. If we build our relationships this way, we can question the merit we granted in our interpersonal relationships.

I’m not saying that trust is not important or that merit is infinite. With my colleague, despite all the respect and admiration I once had for him, I finally reached a point where I could no longer see any merit in our relationship. Therefore, I decided to stop maintaining it. However, by transitioning my point of reference from “trust” to “merit”, I was able to work with him for a longer period of time than if I had used “trust” as a reference point.

Next time someone close to you breaks your trust, I invite you to take a moment and honestly consider: "What does this person bring to our relationship?" and let the answer guide your actions.

Different types of merit

There are different types of merits. Merit is about what somebody brings to the table or provides in our specific relationships.

I invite you to look at the colleagues around you. Take a moment to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who do I like talking to? Why?
  • Who do I seek advice from? Why?
  • With whom would I talk about a personal challenge? Why?

Make sure to see what these colleagues bring to you.

Once again, look at the colleagues around you and, this time, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kinds of conversations come up most during the day?
  • Who is coming to me with the most questions? Why?
  • Who values my expertise?
  • Who is spontaneously opening up to me? Why?

Take the time to examine what you provide your colleagues with.

Is trust something earned?

Let’s go back to the expression that says that "trust is something that we earn". What bothers me with that expression is that its wording implies a certain purgatory, a form of desert crossing!

It’s as though we would tell someone: "Yep! you broke something in our relationship. Believe me, you’ll have to work hard to regain my trust."

Once someone breaks your trust, how hard is it for them to get it back?

Have you ever said that to someone? If so, despite all the efforts deployed by that person, did you ever trust them the way you used before? The biggest challenge for relationships solely based on trust is that it is very long to gain, but it only takes a split second (or a misplaced word) to destroy it.


An item to be reckoned with in this perspective is that as long as there is merit in a relationship, there is a reason to have open discussions on things that do not potentially work well. If the relationship is important to us, it is worth discussing it with the other party to find a way to make it work, isn’t it?

While writing this post, I realize that, at first glance, it may seem bleak to see the relationship from the merit or value point of reference. It can even seem that we do not value the human side of an interpersonal relationship.

Yet, on the contrary, I think that seeing what someone brings to our lives allows us to better understand why we are in a relationship with them. Thus, we can manage our expectations towards them.

What would be different if you were to build your interpersonal relationships on merit?

This article was initially published in French on blog of the LIME business community.