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How do you think your business rates when it comes to trust?

It’s not an idle question. Many surveys indicate a decline in levels of trust in business, society and government. But how do you go about raising your business’s trust scores? In fact—what in the world would a “trust score” look like—and just what would do you do to raise it?

It is an answerable question, and the answer comes in three parts. Let’s take an example—the trust scandal du jour a while back, Bernie Madoff.

Bernie Madoff himself is a classic example of an untrustworthy person. The SEC became known as an untrustworthy organization for its failure to investigate him. And some of his investors—Elie Wiesel, Kevin Bacon, for example—did a poor job of trusting.

Those are the three dimensions by which you should measure your business’s performance on trust. Are your people trustworthy? Does your organization promote trustworthiness? And do you trust others appropriately?

Answering those three questions provides a baseline for assessing your trust needs, and performance going forward. To increase your trust scores, you need a strategy for all three.

1. Strategies for Building Trustworthy People

It may seem obvious that you should hire trustworthy people. But how trustworthy do you consider your competitors’ people to be? How trustworthy do your clients consider your people to be? Such thoughts should lead you quickly to ask: how do I define ‘trustworthy’ in the first place?

Trust is a notoriously situational term to begin with; consider, “I trust my dog with my life—but not with my ham sandwich.” However, one simple model combines most of what we think of when we say ‘trustworthy.’ That model is the Trust Equation:


C = Credibility (what we say)

R = Reliability (what we do)

I = Intimacy (how safe we are with information)

S = Self-orientation (whether we’re focused on ourselves or others)

You can quickly construct assessment instruments and ways of measuring trustworthiness through such a definition (find an online version here.)

A model like the trust equation lets you have a definable, measurable, teachable approach to the first of the three strategies: having trustworthy people.

2. Strategies for Trust-Enhancing Organizations

If the first strategy is about people, the second strategy is about organizations. Even highly trustworthy people, if stuck in a trust-destroying organization, will not be trust-proof. And a highly trust-creating organization can actually support increased trustworthiness at the personal level, by example, motivation and incentive.

But how can we define organizational trust? Here the definitional issues are even harder. How can you compare trust at Apple Computer vs. trust at the IRS? Trust at Boeing vs. trust at Pepsi? It seems like an impossible case of apples and oranges (no pun intended).

The solution is to agree on one-order-deeper drivers of organizational trust. Having studied this issue for some time, I suggest there are four principles that drive high-trust organizations. If organizations follow these principles, they are more likely to generate trust within their organizations, and to be trusted by stakeholders like shareholders, employees and customers.

Those principles are:

  • To be truly client-focused—for the sake of the client, not for the sake of your own revenue;
  • To instinctively behave in a collaborative manner;
  • To view nearly all interactions in a long-term, relationship context—rather than a short-term, transactional context;
  • To treat transparency as the default position, except when illegal or injurious to others.

I mentioned the SEC of a few years ago as an example of organizational trust-weakness. Hardly anyone thinks that individual employees at the SEC were immoral, or personally untrustworthy. Yet the SEC scores poorly when assessed against the four Trust Principles.

The SEC was not client-focused; if anything, it lost its focus on its key clients—investors and capital markets;

The organization was criticized frequently for not collaborating internally—not sharing information between offices and departments—and for not collaborating sufficiently with outside sources that had, in retrospect, critical information;

It appears that the organization fell into a transactional manner of oversight—checking boxes rather than looking for longer-term, underlying patterns (the industry it regulated was steeped in this issue itself);

As an organization, the SEC didn’t succeed in raising issues sharply enough to higher levels internally, or to its own overseers in Congress.

The result was an organization which did not foster trust, did not help build trustworthy people, and which itself quickly came not to be trusted by its own stakeholders.

Are there approaches other than these principles to defining and measuring organizational trust? Certainly there are, though this one comes with behavioral markers that can be surveyed or measured (more information on this approach here.)

3. Strategies for Appropriate Trusting

We often forget that trust is a result—an outcome of an interaction between one who is trusted, and one who is trusting. And while we focus mostly on trustworthiness, it turns out that trusting plays a big role too in determining trust, at both personal and organizational levels.

Most of the time, we think the problem is excessive trusting—as with Elie Wiesel and Kevin Bacon, who unfortunately put excessive trust in Bernie Madoff. They paid dearly in personal financial terms, not to mention angst.

But the bigger problem is usually the opposite—not trusting enough. People and businesses alike commit far greater value destruction, and leave more money on the table by not being trusting enough, than they do by trusting the Madoffs of the world.

Many years ago, I had a consulting client in the convenience store business. Their annual store manager turnover was 150%. They were convinced they needed a new hiring profile.

It turned out, they had a habit of giving all store managers a lie detector test every month, to make sure no one was getting away with theft. After successive months of being given lie detector tests, the average store manager began to think, “Hmmm, someone must be getting away with this for there to be so much emphasis on it; and clearly they don’t trust me. Maybe I’ll see if I can get away with something.”

The lack of ability to trust created a decline in trustworthiness in the store managers, and thus in the organization. Perhaps you know the old saying, “the fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” It’s true.

Of course, this raises the same measurement questions: how does one measure the propensity to trust? Here’s one example, an online assessment by Martha Beck, highlighted by Oprah.

More importantly, what do you do to improve one’s propensity to trust? Here part of the answer is hiring; experts, e.g. Dr. Eric Uslaner, suggest that propensity-to-trust is instilled in us early in life.

But all is not lost. If we improve organizational trust climates (strategy 2), we can improve trusting-ness as well. And finally, we can get better at identifying and taking personal risks.

There is no trust without risk. But people as a rule overly avoid Type 1 error (doing the wrong thing), while incurring excessive Type 2 error (not doing the right thing). By learning to acknowledge errors, put more truth on the table, be more candid, and become more comfortable with transparency and collaboration, individual people can actually improve their ability to trust.

The three strategies for increasing trust are not mutually exclusive: in fact, they are complementary. You cannot diligently pursue one without bumping up against the other two. Trust is both personal and organizational; and requires both trusting and being trusted.

May you trust, and be trusted—individually and institutionally.