Clinton, Trump and the Trust Equation

Those of you following US presidential politics have been treated to a truly unique process this year. The role of the personal, of perceived character – and trustworthiness in particular – hasn’t been this central in decades.

The Trust Equation provides a simple way of articulating the several elements of trustworthiness: Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self-orientation.  In short:

  • Credibility has to do with things we say – accuracy, expertise, capability, credentials
  • Reliability has to do with things we do – predictable, dependable, track record
  • Intimacy has to do with a sense of security that others feel in dealing with us – empathy, discretion, vulnerability
  • Self-orientation has to do partly with selfishness, but more to do with neurotic self-obsession. Being in the denominator of the equation, a high degree of self-orientation serves to reduce trustworthiness.

One of the things we’ve learned about the trust equation over the years is that most of us over-rate the importance of Credibility, and under-rate the importance of Intimacy.

With that as backdrop, let’s look at the key players in the election.

Credibility. In terms of credibility, Clinton has an edge. Her expertise, credentials, and history of responsibility and accomplishments, typically count for a lot. But on another part of credibility – simple truth-telling – she scores not nearly so well. She is perceived as constantly shading and tweaking the truth.

Trump, by contrast, has some business experience but very little relevant government experience, and is widely perceived as massively flip-flopping, telling one after another truth-stretchers, only to walk them back and position them as ‘opening gambits.’

Clearly credibility alone doesn’t explain why Trump is in the ascendance and Clinton in the decline.

Credibility Score: slight edge to Clinton.

Reliability. I don’t think reliability is a differentiator between the two major players. Each probably have reasonable track records.

Reliability Score: tie.

Intimacy. In person, as individuals, both Clinton and Trump are quite personable.  But in their public persona – and by her own admission – Clinton has never managed to project intimacy. She is wooden, stiff, provoking mainly winces and eye-rolls.

Trump – as well as Bernie Sanders – both score much higher on intimacy. Sanders’ frumpiness and evident unprofessionalism make him appear genuine. For his part, Trump’s ability to voice the unspoken fears in so many people connect on a visceral, even subconscious, level.

Intimacy score: Advantage Trump (and Sanders).

Self-orientation. At first blush, Trump might appear the epitome of high self-orientation. He is not only self-promoting, but self-obsessed. But he is so open and unapologetic about his self-focus that it doesn’t hurt him (at least with his core constituency). Intimacy trumps self-orientation.

With Clinton, there is a strong sense of self-serving, disingenuous deception. And the perception of high self-orientation colors voters’ perception of all the other factors as well. If we think someone is highly self-oriented, then we suspect the truth of what they say, are skeptical of their track records, and are skeptical about portrayals of intimacy.

Self-orientation score: Advantage Trump.

If this quick profiling makes sense to you, let me add some more data. 70,000 people have taken the TQ Trust Quotient Self Assessment, based on the Trust Equation (you can take it too). You can read a full description of the results in our White Paper: Think Expertise Will Create More Trust? Think Again, but here’s a headline.

The most powerful factor of the four is not Credibility – which most people in business think – but Intimacy.

It is not surprising that Clinton is having trouble getting traction: she’s on the losing end of the most powerful factor, intimacy. She’s playing her best hand – credibility – but it’s not working. And there’s a lesson in that for all of us.

(By the way, thanks for long-time reader Martin Dalgleish for inspiring this particular blogpost)