Tackling Trust in the Tech Sector

(I’m attending #CODECON this week). Trust in digital technology is a nascent hot issue. The headlines are a target-rich environment for emerging trust issues: from GDPR to autonomous vehicles to fake news to ad tech to AI to cyber-hacking. Tech leadership is scrambling to stay out in front of the EEC, the Justice Department, and – most of all – public opinion.

Trust is not yet the crippling threat that we see in financials or pharmaceuticals; brands are still strong, the sector is relatively regulation-free, and money is being minted. But the clouds are on the horizon.  According to Edelman PR, “Trust in technology is showing precipitous decline.”  Smart leaders know not to ignore the canaries in the mine.

The usual solutions are – to be kind – all over the map. They include governance, “best practices,” re-skilling, communications efforts, transparency initiatives, compliance programs, and mission statements.

If you feel these “solutions” are all vaguely unsatisfying – you’re right. What they all lack is a fundamental understanding of the basics of corporate trust, as applied to tech.

At the root of it all: people trust people more than organizations.

Trust – the Basics

Consider three basic, commonsensical tenets of trust:

  • Trust is a dynamic relationship between trustor and trustee;
  • Trust is created when a trustor takes a risk, to which the trustee responds (or doesn’t), creating higher levels of trust (or not);
  • The strongest trust is between persons; trust in organizations by contrast is pale, or ‘thin.’

Here are a few counter-intuitive corollaries of those basic principles:

  1. Working directly on the perception of corporate trust – through PR, advertising, reputation management – is pushing on a string. Corporate messaging urging you to trust the corporation is impersonal, viewed skeptically, and weak by nature;
  2. Risk mitigation doesn’t help trust, it destroys it. All trust begins by a trustor taking a risk; no risk, no trust.
  3. The best way to create a trusted organization is to create a Trust-based Organization: one in which all persons are trusting and trusted by all those they encounter, in all their interactions.

The failure of corporations to articulate coherent approaches to trust can be traced to their failure to fully appreciate that trust is primarily personal, that it requires risk, and that it is driven by employees interacting with others based on core trust values.

A positive (or negative) personal interaction with a Lyft driver does more to create (or destroy) trust than a revised TOS agreement, ad, or app feature. Ditto for an Airbnb host, a Google technical service rep, or a Salesforce account exec.  Corporate trust is created by the aggregation of personal interactions at the platform/customer interface.

Trust Basics Applied to Tech

The tech industry, like most, has a few peculiar wrinkles. For one, tech inherently deals with inanimate, impersonal ‘things,” whether that be iPhones or algorithms. It’s an uphill battle to personalize trust.

Another signature trust challenge for tech is scaling. This typically means data capture, digitization, and algorithms-cum-procedures. Trust can also scale – but through values, not algorithms. Corporate trust ultimately rests on personal trust, which rests on personally-demonstrated values:

  • Southwest Airlines’ reputation emerged unscathed from recent disasters that would have sunk United, because its demonstrated emphasis on deeply personal interactions inoculated it against the impersonal “big company” image;
  • Facebook has a great trust advantage in that its core subject is personal relationships. But it gained a reputation as being “creepier” than Google because, once hacked by fake ‘friends’, our sense of personal betrayal is far greater than for a flawed algorithm about buying preferences.

Transparency in tech is big – but often misunderstood. Transparency per se is not key – it’s how open you are about what you’re being transparent about. Ten pages of “disclosed” Terms of Service is like the small print at the end of your bank statement – more a cause for suspicion than a gesture of openness. Tech customers – like all people – will accept a wide range of behaviors as long as they feel you’re being intentionally open about them.

What is To Be Done?

The answer is simple, albeit not easy. Create a Trust-based Organization.

As noted above, that means an organization in which the cultural DNA is rooted in individual relationships, in which people know how to be trusting and trustworthy in all their personal interactions, and in which the organization supports such traits through some specific shared values.

  • Trusting. The key skill of trusting is intelligent risk-taking. This is less about risk-aversion, and more about knowing how to be personally vulnerable and emotionally connected. The skills of empathy, listening and transparency are, to paint with a broad brush, not widely practiced in tech – but they are as key to trust as anywhere else.
  • Trustworthiness. The Trust Equation lists the four factors of personal trustworthiness: (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-orientation. Tech people love the equation-based formulation, but tend to focus overwhelmingly on the two ‘rational’ components of Credibility and Reliability. Yet our research shows that, in fact, the single most powerful factor driving personal trustworthiness is Intimacy. Again, not a core strength in most of tech.
  • Values. The Four Trust Principles – Collaboration, Relationships over transactions, Transparency, and Other-focus – offer a values-based beginning point for cultural transformation. There are many things an organization can do to become trust-based, but chief among them are conscious role-modeling on the part of leadership: in particular, role-modeling of the virtues of trusting and being trustworthy.

(It’s worth noting that the traditional tools of change management – metrics, KSFs, incentives – are not only not very helpful in trust, but can even be counter-productive: we don’t trust others if we think they’re incentivized to appear trustworthy just to gain personal advancement).

In sum, people don’t trust YourCo. They trust the people in YourCo, and they do so based on how those people interact with them and with all others.

If you’re serious about improving trust in your company, don’t lead with your communications department – lead with your leaders. Personally.