Trust is Down: But, Like, So What?

Trust in One Another is Down: Civic health IndexThe news is full of quotes like this, from the Edelman Trust Barometer:

“In January 2009, every one of the major industries had trust declines…but you see a trust renaissance now [midyear 2009] in a few key industries…we saw increase and stability particularly in auto and in tech….though in France, tech is the number 3…”

This kind of language feeds the perception that ‘trust’ is a unitary phenomenon, capable of being measured precisely, with meaningful small gradations.

Contrast that commercially provided data with a longer-term academic view of trust. Click here for a graph (thanks to the National Council on Citizenship) that shows a nearly uninterrupted steady decline in interpersonal trust for over 25 years. What does a half-year–or a month–mean against that backdrop?

Then throw in, “I trust my dog with my life; but not with my ham sandwich.” 

When it comes to trust, one size definitely does not fit all. It’s remarkable that one word covers so many meanings.

‘Trust’ Has Way More Than One Meaning

The truth is, ‘trust’ covers at least four distinguishable meanings—trust in the general human race (social trust), trust in institutions, trust in particular other human beings, and trust in certain processes (e.g. recommendations from previous buyers on eBay).

It is meaningless to say that I ‘trust’ Apple Computer more, or less, than my dog; or my dog more than my girlfriend; or my girlfriend more than Microsoft. It doesn’t even make sense to say I trust Apple more than Microsoft.  It depends.

It depends what I’m trusting them to do, or how to do it. I trust my dog to love me unconditionally more than Microsoft. I trust Microsoft more than my girlfriend to help me with databases, and I trust my girlfriend more than Apple to–well, you get the idea.

Worse yet, ‘trust’ is an end result, an outcome. It isn’t something that people do, it’s the state of affairs when they’re done doing. It isn’t a behavior. You can measure the outcome—but it won’t tell you what to do. 

Trust is An Outcome: There are Two Action Strategies to Get There

Trust is the result of an interaction between a Trustor and a Trustee.  One does the trusting; one is the one who is trusted.

You can increase, or decrease, trust–but not directly.  You must choose one of two strategies.

1. You can choose to be more trusting of others, which increases the odds they’ll reciprocate, but at high risk.

2. You can choose to be more trustworthy, which increases your attractiveness in their eyes, though it may take longer.

You can’t act on trust itself: but you can act on the actors. 

If ‘trust’ is down, is that because people are less trusting? Or because the one they trust is less trustworthy?

At root, was the problem with Bernie Madoff that we trusted him too much? Or was the problem with Bernie Madoff—Bernie Madoff?

These are non-trivial questions: they have to with corporate and public policy implications of that oh-so-simple-looking data that ‘trust is down.’

Roderick Kramer, publishing in Harvard Business Review,  suggests “Despite deceit, greed, and incompetence on a previously unimaginable scale, people are still trusting too much.”  Too much trust.  Trust is down?  Good; we needed a trust recession.

Kramer’s full viewpoint is much more nuanced than that, but that’s how he and HBR wrote the headline to his article.  And many people do believe that a trust decline is probably a good thing, that we all probably ought to be even less trusting of a lot of things. That’s a strategy of trusting–on the negative side.

Others, like Harry Markopolis,  the Madoff whistleblower, are inclined to blame a combination of Madoff and the regulatory institutions set up to protect us from him. Trust down? Then we need to make the SEC much more effective.  That’s a strategy of trustworthiness, via 3rd party enforcement.

Steven Covey Jr. preaches that in an increasingly interconnected world, we need more trusting, not less.  I agree, but in any case, that’s a trusting strategy.

So–what to do? If I run a technology business, and I learn that my trust level is way up, except not so much in France, over the last few months—like, what am I supposed to do with that?

What Are We to Do About All This Trust Data?

I have a few answers.

Let’s pass on social trust; it moves glacially. Pick your parents well, teach your children, vote, and give generously to charities.  That’s about it.

I’m going to focus on business and interpersonal trust.

In that realm, it is probably true that ‘the fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.’   That’s a classic trusting strategy.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen in the litigious, emotionally constipated and largely fear-driven corporate mentality of these these hunker-down recessionary times. Way too many people are way too risk averse.  Trusting, as a trust-creation strategy, appears to them to be just too risky.

The other trust-creation strategy—being trustworthy—has a somewhat longer payback, but with less business risk, and less risk of being executed badly.  For the most part, the trustworthy strategy is the one I recommend to companies.

So here’s what you can do.

1. At the individual level:

2. At the business level:

That’s my answer to ‘so what,’ at least for now.