Trust: why it's essential, and how to earn it

"When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective." --Stephen R. Covey

I've been planning to revisit the topic of trust on this blog for some time. Upon reviewing my blog posts from the past year, I've identified 20 principles related to trust. I list four of them below.

Expertise is highly valued and rewarded.  Yet many people are unaware that trust is even more valuable.

First, why is trust so important?

  • Trust helps us maintain stable interactions.
  • Trust gives us the ability to hold beliefs, without which we would be paralyzed, unable to take any action.
  • Trust is an important ingredient in life satisfaction.
  • We are happiest when we have relationships with people we trust to support us.

The "Trust Equation" from The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford, intrigued me because it quantifies something most people wouldn't normally try to measure. According to this equation, a person's trustworthiness is influenced by four factors: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation.  The first three factors increase trustworthiness, and the last factor decreases it.

The trust equation: (credibility + reliability + intimacy) / (self-orientation)

It may not be a scientific formula, but it's the closest thing I've found to one so far.  In researching this topic, I discovered other factors that contribute to trustworthiness, which I will mention here.  I will explain each one in more detail, and then we will see which seems most important.  The result may surprise you.  Finally, we'll discuss how we can use this to our advantage.

Factors that affect trustworthiness

I did not leave any stone unturned in my search for factors that affect trustworthiness.  Similar to the "trust equation" above, I found there to be four general categories for these factors:

  • Honesty
  • Competence
  • Openness
  • Caring about others

Let's examine each in turn.  First, here are the sources from which this information was obtained:

The diagram below comes from WorldofWork.io, which website compares The Trust Equation with two other popular models of trust.I am indebted to World of Work, not just for the graphic but for the four categories since I believe they accurately sum up not only the three models they consider but also all the other models I've explored.  The first is Ken Blanchard's ABCD model of trust.Kenneth Hartley Blanchard is an American author, business consultant, and motivational speaker. His most successful book, The One Minute Manager, has sold over 15 million copies. Blanchard is known for the quote "None of us is as smart as all of us."  I looked high and low for the source of the "Trust in Sales" model but couldn't find it.  Nevertheless, it fits in quite well with what is described below.

I used two academic sources, both meta-analyses, for comparison, which I call the Integrative ModelThe paper examines the work of 23 prior authors studying trust that were published between 1953-1993. Mayer, R., Davis, J.H., & Schoorman, F. (1995). An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust. Academy of Management Review, 20, 709-734. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMR.1995.9508080335 and the Multidisciplinary AnalysisThis paper compared definitions of trust from 17 papers and found common factors that were mentioned. Tschannen-Moran, M., & Hoy, W. (2000). A Multidisciplinary Analysis of the Nature, Meaning, and Measurement of Trust. Review of Educational Research, 70, 547 - 593. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543070004547 .  I also compared an informal (non-peer-reviewed) study by Charles Green, founder of Trust Associates and one of the authors of The Trusted Advisor, as well as another informal study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman featured in Harvard Business Review."By looking at data from the 360 degree assessments of 87,000 leaders, we were able to identify three key clusters of items that are often the foundation for trust. We looked for correlations between the trust rating and all other items in the assessment and after selecting the 15 highest correlations, we performed a factor analysis that revealed these three elements." (As opposed to a typical employee performance review, in which an employee's performance is evaluated only by their manager, a 360-degree review takes into account feedback from peers and reporting staff members-even customers and others with whom the employee interacts.)

Honesty

It is no surprise that honesty is essential for trust.  The only surprise may be how important it is in relation to the other factors.  We'll get to that shortly.

The World of Work associates honesty with two things: words and actions.  

Honesty in words includes integrity - the trustor's perception that the trustee adheres to an acceptable set of principles.  Keeping our promises, not stretching the truth, and not gossiping are ways to demonstrate integrity.  Blanchard calls this "believability."

Honesty in action is also called dependability, reliability, or consistency.  By being predictable, we give others the assurance that we will do what they expect.

Competence

Various models refer to this quality as ability, expertise, or capability.  Because someone without knowledge or ability in a certain field depends on someone who has it, expertise increases trustworthiness. There is more potential for trust when the difference in experience is greater.  Zenger and Folkman add "good judgment" to this category.  Green and his associates use the word credibility, which, as the diagram below indicates, spills over to honesty.  

Openness

This category is not as obvious to some researchers as the first two. A person who is open is relatable, approachable, warm, and human.  They come across as genuine.  

Openness goes beyond this.  Openness is characterized by not withholding relevant information; it is the process by which people make themselves vulnerable to others by sharing their own personal information.  The Trust Equation model uses "intimacy" to describe the degree to which people trust us and believe that we are discreet, empathetic, and safe.

Caring about others

Earlier, formal models referred to this quality as benevolence. Benevolence is the extent to which a trustee is believed to want to do good to the trustor. It is the confidence that one's well-being, or something one cares about, will be protected and not harmed by the trusted party.

Those with this quality help customers make an informed purchase decision by giving them accurate information about products and services while avoiding high-pressure sales tactics and gimmicks.  Customers are the priority, not sales.  Green refers to it as (low) self-orientation.

Blanchard calls this "connectedness," meaning openly sharing information about oneself and the organization and trusting employees to use that information responsibly.  This shows that Blanchard considers benevolence and openness to be two sides of the same coin.  

Zenger and Folkman found only three primary categories.  Besides good judgment/expertise and honesty/consistency, their third category is "positive relationships."  According to them, positive relationships include staying in touch with the issues and concerns of others, balancing results with concern for others, generating cooperation, resolving conflict, and giving honest feedback in a helpful way.  It's basically the same as Blanchard's "connectedness."The Integrative Model also is basically a 3-factor model, placing openness under either integrity or benevolence depending on the context.  In contrast, the Multidisciplinary Analysis finds five key factors: honesty, reliability, competence, openness, and benevolence.  This would fit very nicely if we expanded honesty in word and action into two separate categories, as the Blanchard model has also done.  All told, every model I've considered supports the four categories I've listed, with some condensing two of them into one. (Benevolence and openness in two models and competence and honesty in the case of The Trust Equation.)

A diagram comparing Blanchard's ABCD model with "The Trust Equation" and another sales-based model

How to be trusted

Here's where the rubber meets the road.  Although each of these categories is important, they are not equal.  

In your opinion, which category is the most important?

I've already hinted that honesty isn't the most influential factor.  What about competence?  Having expertise is highly rewarded, and it also contributes greatly to trustworthiness - so is it the most important factor?

No.  Openness and care for others matter most.  It might surprise you to learn that, of all four, openness, or intimacy, is the most important.  Why is this?

A sense of openness indicates mutual trust. Individuals who withhold information and conceal it provoke suspicion. Others wonder what these people are hiding and why. Trust breeds trust, and distrust breeds distrust. 

Green and his colleagues used a proprietary scoring instrument with 20 questions - five questions for each of the four variables.  Their white paper, linked above, reports their findings after testing over 70,000 participants.  Reliability was the most important variable for 53% of respondents. Only 18% of respondents scored favorably on intimacy and only 18% on self-orientation.I was unable to determine from the paper how many scored highest for credibility.  It was somewhere between 18-53%.

The paper concludes that credentials and skill mastery, which most organizations place great emphasis on, are the least effective in building trust. Acquiring more knowledge and adding credentials rarely is the best way to become more trustworthy. 

The most effective leaders scored high on reliability and intimacy.  This describes only 17% of the respondents.  The top three of six "temperament" types categorized as most effective all scored high in intimacy.  Only 34% of the respondents belonged to these three types.The authors add, "An even blend of the four trust components is more effective than being off the charts in one or two areas."

Intimacy skills can usually be learned. This offers organizations a great opportunity to enhance employee trustworthiness. Despite this, most organizations do little to develop their employees' intimacy skills - a missed opportunity.

An individual's trustworthiness can be drastically improved by focusing on weaknesses because improving weaknesses increases perceived integrity.

Showing trust percentile as a function of relationships, judgment, and consistency

Zenger and Folkman also found that Relationships were the most significant factor, accounting for 30 percentile points.  In contrast, Judgment influenced the score by around 15 percentile points, while Consistency impacted it by only ten percentile points.  If someone scored high on both Judgment and Consistency, they were still considered less trustworthy than someone who scored high on Relationships but poorly on the other two.  In fact, if one scored low on the Relationships factor, it was nearly impossible to be considered a trustworthy leader.The authors noted, "Being just above average on these skills can have a profound positive effect and, conversely, just being below average can destroy trust."

What do we learn? Reliability and integrity are important, but learning to be open, trusting, and vulnerable will yield the best results.  It's also a good time to prioritize your relationships.I also want to point out that integrity, dependability, reliability, and care for others are all traits of a well-rounded person.  In addition, emotional vulnerability demonstrates a willingness to take risks.

I'm going to end with some excellent questions suggested by Bruna Martinuzzi, author of the book The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

  • When I know that information I have is useful to others, do I share it or keep it to myself?
  • Am I kind and compassionate to everyone?
  • Regardless of the personal cost, do I stick to my commitments?
  • Do I seize opportunities to encourage others?
  • Am I just as happy about others' achievements as I am of my own?
  • Would people readily describe me as genuine?