Managing Trust Metrics

Trust is hot; particularly in the last year.  Measurement has been hot for the past 10 years.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that lots of people are getting excited about measuring trust.

The question they should ask themselves is: why?

One knee jerk management mantra these days is, “You can’t manage it if you can’t measure it,” or “what gets measured gets managed.”  Well, yes—and no.

Early (by which I mean 5 years ago) trust measurements included things like buyer ratings on eBay, and they made sense.  Today, measurement/management mantras get applied in undiscriminating ways.

Trust Trends: Precisely Measuring—What?

Consider the statement: Trust in CEOs is down.  Does it mean that people are less trusting these days? Or that CEOs are less trustworthy?  Or both, and the second interpretation caused the first?

And what do you do about it?  If people are less trusting, then fixing CEOs won’t much help.  If untrustworthy CEOs are the problem, then it will.  But which is it?

My accounting professor, Richard Vancil, when asked the definition of “profit,” replied, “it’s the last line on an income statement.”  Meaning it was a question with no good answer.

I think longitudinal trust attitude questions are much the same: what they measure is the shift in answer to a given question over a period of time.  The question itself isn’t clear, nor does it suggest clear policies.

How’m I Doing?  Measuring Trust Improvement is Tricky

New York’s Mayor Koch was known for asking ‘How’m I doing?’ at every juncture.  I don’t know how it worked for Koch, but it doesn’t work so well for trust.  

You can often measure things like quality (defects per million), or efficiency (output over input) with great precision, and with great frequency.  But try asking your significant other whether (s)he loves you, in myriad ways, every hour.  It won’t take long for the process flow approach to measurement to ruin the love you were so intent on measuring.  Not to mention: just how did you define ‘love’ anyway?  What would you do with the answer?

Measuring Trust to Drive Motivation Can Backfire

A common way to use metrics is to reward certain outcomes.  Applied to trust, this can generate perverse results.  Trust is partly about unselfish attitudes and actions–think about the ethical schizophrenia that results from using monetary incentives to encourage unselfish behavior.

The Best Trust Measurement Encourages Diagnosis

If measuring ‘trust’ alone is like squeezing air; if the act of measuring alters the measurement; and if incentivizing trust metrics can destroy trustworthiness itself; then what are trust metrics good for?

I think they’re good for a great deal—if defined in terms that respect the inherent breadth of meaning of trust, and in ways that allow concrete actions to be taken to improve trustworthiness.

Want to measure trust? 

Start by defining what you’re measuring: the capacity to trust, the quality of trustworthiness, or the presence of both.  (See Trust, Trusting and Trustworthiness). 

Then clarify whether you’re evaluating personal trust, organizational trust, or social trust.  (See Realms and Manifestations of Trust)

Then ask whether respondents will gain practical insights and actions from the measurement to improve their trusting-ability, or their trustworthiness.

At the risk of appearing self-serving, the Trust Quotient is an example.  It measures personal trustworthiness in 20 inter-related ways that provide self-insight to the test-taker, as well as offering practical suggestions for self-improvement. 

The Trust Audit  is another example, this one measuring trustworthiness at the organizational level.   It too uses 20 inter-related measures—not one—that together suggest specific opportunities for improvement. 

Measuring trust is not like other measurements: it’s less like measuring liquid flow or efficiency than it is like measuring love.  It deserves its own metric system.