Yes Trust is Down – But Trust in What?

New headlines daily grace the front pages (or screens) of our news outlets that make us question just how far our trust in (fill in the blank) has fallen. Whether it’s politicians or social empires like Facebook, it seems that as individuals we are now in a constant state of “well who shouldn’t I trust now?”

In many ways it’s very true, but it begs an even more important question – if trust is so far down today, what does that really mean?

You can’t throw a brick into the Googlenets these days without hitting some survey that bemoans the current low state of trust in society. And while there’s a lot of truth to those surveys, there’s also a lot of uncritical thinking and sloppy theorizing.

There are also some powerful ways in which trust has actually increased in recent times, and even more in which trust has stayed broadly the same.

Some Basic Trust Definitions

Much writing on trust neglects to make two simple distinctions. The first is that between trusting and being trusted; both are required for trust, and they are quite distinct. Trust requires a trustor and a trustee – they are different, and asymmetrical. One requires taking a risk, the other requires, broadly speaking, a moral virtuousness. “Trust,” properly speaking, is neither one of those things: it is the result of an interaction between the two of them.

The second distinction is between personal and institutional trust. Personal trust is by far the stronger of the two. You may trust Google to find a babysitter to interview, but you don’t trust Google itself to babysit your infant. And you’re a lot more likely to put your life on the line for your children than for your Coke/Apple/favorite brand. (A notable exception is national patriotism).

Most of the surveys that decry the decline in trust are talking about institutional trust. And it’s true: our “trust” in many, perhaps most, of our political institutions has declined. Ditto for most professions, the police, banks, retail stores, and established religion.

And yet…

If Trust is So Far Down, How Come—

  • you entered your credit card number online last week – at least once – from your mobile;
  • some of you use auto-complete on your mobile to fill in forms, perhaps even including your credit card number;
  • you share so much private information on Facebook (even after all the recent news);
  • you use Lyft, Airbnb, or another sharing economy app;
  • you paid your property taxes online;
  • you may have paid for Amazon to deliver via FedEx a camera that shows your front door.

These are all small examples of how the world has become far more linked. Many of us wouldn’t have considered doing these things ten years ago. These are small counter-examples of increased institutional trust. And, they are examples of trusting, the propensity to trust; at the same time, they suggest that we assign some pretty high levels of trustworthiness to other actors.

At the same time, there are many examples of both personal and institutional trust that have remained largely the same, without much fanfare. For example, you probably still:

  • Ask your neighbor to hold your mail for a few days
  • Fly on planes
  • Don’t look right or left when the light turns green (though you should)
  • Drink the coffee / eat the food at nearly every restaurant in the world without thinking
  • Ask a stranger at the beach to watch your stuff for a minute while you go to the bathroom.

In fact, an enormous amount of daily life consists of little examples of trust: mostly social and personal, but also institutional. Don’t let the headlines make you forget it.

Where Trust Really Is Down

That said, trust really is down in a few areas, and it’s important to be clear about just where.

First, there are indeed some ways in which people are less inclined to trust institutions than we used to be. But even here, read with a grain of salt. When people say they don’t trust Target (for example), they often mean something like “I don’t trust Target’s IT systems to ensure that my credit card doesn’t get compromised.”

Note this is an issue that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Also, it’s an issue affecting pretty much any large organization involved in financing. Also, and most important, check how many people stopped shopping at Target because of concerns about credit cards.

Saying “trust is down” without specifying “trust to do what?” is akin to a non sequitur. You might as well say “love is down” without grounding the statement in divorce rates, dating sites or something else concrete.

The most important way in which trust really is down is in what Eric Uslaner calls generalized trust. As measured by the General Social Survey for 50-some years, it basically asks, “By and large, do you think people mean well, or can’t you be too careful?” In other words, it is a generalized propensity to trust strangers.

On this measure, there is indeed a very gradual, but nonetheless real, decline over the years. High levels of propensity to trust have been linked to education and optimism. Low levels of propensity to trust have been linked to pessimism and low exposure to out-groups.  It is a true, important, and sad, statement that trust in this sense has indeed declined in the US, and in most western world countries.

And that is indeed something to be concerned about, far more than whether “trust” in the financial industry is down x points on a survey last quarter.

25 Warning Signs You Have a Low-Trust Organization: Part 4 of 5

Are you part of a low-trust organization? There are a surprising number of symptoms and tip-offs; perhaps the least obvious are in the organization’s products and services. This is fourth in a series of five. The other posts address warning signs from:

Product/Service Warning Signs of a Low-Trust Organization

Take a hard look at YourCo’s products and services. Not only do they provide tipoffs about high or low trust – they are themselves the beneficiaries (or victims) of high or low trust. YourCo’s market offering is very much tied up with trust.

Here are some product/service indicators of low trust at YourCo:

1. Innovation is low in YourCo.

  • Pick five big-picture indicators of innovation and rank your organization vs. your competitors. If you rank high, you probably have a high-trust organization. Low? Then probably not so much.
  • If you don’t rank well, you’ve got well-rehearsed excuses. “We’re like Apple, we’re not first in but we get it right.” “We focus more on service quality than on innovation per se.”  But you know what? Apple innovates. Ritz-Carlton innovates. Just in different areas. What’s your area?
  • The simple truth is, high-trust organizations foster high levels of innovation; low-trust organizations don’t. The lack of innovation is a canary in the coal mine; innovation itself is one of the great benefits of high trust.

2. Complaints are considered routine at YourCo.

  • Nobody’s perfect? OK. But if a complaint about your product or service no longer produces pain or angst within YourCo, then you’ve lost trust. Customers will sense that you’re unreliable, and – worse – that you don’t care.
  • Maybe this is just us, but we think those “please take a moment and rate your service” approaches hurt trust. They are automated; they leave no room for creativity; worse, they are all about YourCo and YourCo’s internal evaluation scheme. And worst of all, they pretend to be about the customer.

3. You don’t offer guarantees.

  • If you’re a retailer offering $1.99 items, “satisfaction or your money back” is no big deal. But if you’re a professional services provider, the value you provide may be way beyond the cost you charge.
  • What would it cost you to guarantee the cost of your service? If you’d lose money doing that – then maybe you have a service quality problem. The perception of not standing behind your service is that you yourself don’t trust it.
  • If you do offer a guarantee but it’s in small print, and you quibble over it, you just lost the value of the guarantee. That means you view guarantees as a cost of doing business, and not as a sign of confidence and customer respect. That will cost you trust.

4. Information is not forthcoming.

  • In this day and age, all customers – B2B, B2C – want easy access to every question they might have. The organization that gives you easy access to answers is the one that gets your trust.  The organization that manages your access to information so that you only see what they want you to see when they want you to see it – that’s the organization that loses your trust.
  • Put everything you can imagine on your website. That doesn’t mean it has to be all above the fold on page one; it just means you have to make it very available, and reasonably accessible. If I can’t find it, I infer you must be hiding it.  And I don’t trust you.
  • There are some questions I want help with; that’s when you make 800 numbers available, click here for live chat…  If instead of those options I get, “this is a recorded message; please call back during the hours of…” that’s when trust declines.

5. You think you’ve got the hamburgers.

  • In the early days of McDonald’s in Moscow, I’m told, customer service attitudes were hard to change. As one employee told a hapless American from corporate, “You people don’t seem to understand.  You see, we have the hamburgers; the customers don’t. They should be nice to us.”
  • Working from trust in business means you don’t trap people into doing what you want. Instead, you give them what they want; then let them live up to their humanity and give you what you want. The best way to create trustworthy customers is to trust them with your products and services.

The next blogpost in this series will be the last: client and customer tip-offs about whether you’re a low-trust organization.


Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ [email protected].

25 Warning Signs You Have a Low-Trust Organization: Part 2 of 5

It’s not impossible to find a high-trust team in a low-trust organization – we’ve seen a few – but not too many. For the most part, low-trust organizations are made up of low-trust teams.

This is the second in a series of five, totaling 25 warnings signs in:

Team Warning Signs of a Low-Trust Organization

Look around the teams in your environment. Do they have some of these characteristics? Then you might be a member of a low-trust organization.

1. A low-trust team isn’t productive.

  • It misses milestones. It doesn’t deliver on time, or on spec. The team doesn’t do what it says it will do. The team is unreliable.
  • It produces mediocre work. It settles for what looks to be low risk, getting the lowest common denominator. It chokes off innovation in the name of risk, often masking jealousy and NIH (not invented here) Syndrome.
  • It fails to achieve its goals. Goal failure is more than milestone failure writ large. It speaks to a failure of common purpose and common commitment.

2. Low-trust teams typically form sub-groups and cliques within them.

  • There are flurries of private emails and hushed conversations. This is sub-team bonding, not even tribal – it is transient, shallow, and superficial – Mean Girls bonding.
  • Team members are guarded in their communications. They are concerned someone else might hear, and that would be in principle a bad thing. It’s the ‘in principle’ part that’s worrisome.
  • Information is hoarded as a source of political power, rather than shared to create greater team power and organizational success.

3. Low-trust teams are less than the sum of their parts.

  • A great team – even a just pretty good team – can accomplish so much more than simply the sum of its parts. But a low-trust team can’t.
  • They choke off innovation and personal growth – things that happen organically even in a neutral, social organization. A low-trust team isn’t benign, it’s toxic.
  • People are massively influenced by those around them – a group of low-trust people can bring even a strong team player down to their level of low trust.
  • If the team is bureaucratically protected from competition, it will have low turnover among a core group and high turnover from the occasional newcomer. If the team is in a competitive environment, it will show high turnover everywhere. No one likes staying.

4. A low trust team is addicted to faux team-ness, happy talk, not real team walk.

  • We can’t prove this, but we sometimes wonder if the presence of those motivational posters isn’t negatively correlated with team behavior (or is that just us being cynical?)
  • Lip service is the coin of the realm, because to be honest would be to acknowledge the existence of low trust. Honesty is what distinguishes a merely critical team from a low-trust team; the latter is disengaged.
  • The opposite of low-trust teams isn’t competitive, meritocratic teams; it is teams who know enough to wish they were trust-based, and try to pretend to appear so.
  • There is frequently a high-performer, one who achieves great results but does not follow the values. This manifest unfairness results in resentment among the rest of the team.

5. A low-trust team has trouble collaborating.

  • Low-trust teams are likely to prefer individual compensation schemes; they don’t believe in, or trust, the ability of the team to do well for them, preferring to fend for themselves.
  • Collaboration drives innovation; but low-trust teams exalt solo work, thus buying into the “solo inventor” myth of innovation.

If teams in your ecosphere look like this, you may be hanging around a low-trust organization.

For some ideas on how to improve trust, see Three Strategies to Improve Business’s Trust.

In the next post we’ll explore Five Warning Signs in Leadership that suggest a low-trust organization.


Whom Can You Trust? How Can You Know?

This blog mostly writes about how businesses and people can become more trustworthy, and more (intelligently) trusting. What we don’t write as often about is who not to trust.

How do you spot a con? Should you trust your instincts? What’s the role of credentials? Who do you trust? (This blogpost will deal mainly with personal trust).

I must lead with two caveats: there is no trust without risk, and there is no riskless world available to any of us. There is only so much you can do to avoid risk. That said, let’s talk about it.

The following 17 rules are mostly exclusionary: violation of one rule may be enough to blacklist, but the absence of violations isn’t enough to guarantee no risk. Just as there are codes, there are codebreakers. There are always Bernie Madoffs, con men who know how to use all the rules of trust against us.

The Trust Equation comes in very handy here. Since it is a formula for trustworthiness, let’s reverse-engineer it to define what the anti-trust equation looks like.

Let’s imagine you are looking for a pediatrician, a financial planner, a gardener, a lawyer, an events planner. How do you know you can trust them?

Trust Equation Component 1: Credibility

1. Credentials. If someone has no credentials, while others in their business do, they have a lot of explaining to do. You probably have better things to do. Move on.

2. Clarity. If the person can’t explain it to you clearly, and we’re not talking about nuclear physics, move on. That includes lawyers and financial planners.

3. Fine print. If there’s a lot of it, that’s not good. And if they say ‘you don’t need to worry about this, you can just sign it,’ that’s definitely not good.

4. Does it feel ‘almost too good to be true?’ Listen to that feeling; it’s probably right, it is too good to be true.

Trust Equation Component 2: Reliability

1. Track record. Do they have a track record at all? If not, not good.

2. Integrity. Do they say what they’ll do and then do it? Do you know? Does anyone know? Do they have a reputation at all? If no, keep walking.

3. Are they unprepared for meetings, and wing it, and you know it?

4. Do they show up on time? Call to let you know they’re running late?

Trust Equation Component 3: Intimacy

1. Do you feel personally at ease with them as a human being, not just an expert? Not star-struck, or blown away—just comfortably at ease. If not, you can do better.

2. Did they do most of the talking? That’s not good, you know. Move along.

3. Does your child or pet like them? Not like them? (Not limited to pediatricians and veterinarians).

4. Do they share others’ secrets with you to ingratiate you? That means you can’t trust their discretion.

Trust Equation Component 4: Self-Orientation

1. Did they engage you in conversation about your problem? Letting you talk about it? If not, that’s not a good sign.

2. Do they blame others for their shortcomings? A sign of not taking responsibility.

3. Do you feel pressured by them to act quickly? Be wary of “we can only keep this open for one more week,” or “we’re only taking a few more investors.”

4. Check your own motives. Are you looking for a quick fix, a special deal? Then you’re the ideal con target. You might as well wear a target.

5. Maybe most important of all: Did you feel guilty about asking questions? About not moving along at the seller’s speed? Did you feel pressured to give certain answers, or to offer certain information? Check your gut: your own feelings of guilt or pressure are serious warning signs. Ignore them at your peril.

Postscript: I was tempted to write this post as a 100-point quiz.  You know, deduct so many points for each “bad” answer, and end with “if your potential trustee scored between X and Y, you probably should…”  You know the type.  And it would probably be more popular.

But I don’t think that’s right in this case. The idea that you can precisely put a meter on trust is a dangerous idea. There’s  more than enough false precision out there already. Let’s just leave this at the personal, your-mileage-may-vary level: it’s meaningful if it’s meaningful to you.

July Carnival of Trust is Up!

The July Carnival of Trust is now up for your reading (and viewing, and listening) pleasure.

The Carnival is hosted this month by Adrian Dayton, who somehow lives the schizophrenic life of a lawyer who is social-media savvy.

And his Carnival shows it.  He comes up with some doozy negative examples of trust.  I love negative examples, as I think we learn better this way. 

–Read about a classic Twitter tweet that is bound to destroy trust.

–Or–have you ever been badgered?  No, I mean Badgered–as in, by a Badger.  Great YouTube find.

–Or, 20 rules for trust in blogging. 

Want to know more about trust?  Or to get Adrian’s unique social media take on it?  Or merely read a few highly entertaining, insightful selected blogs and comments about trust in the world?  Then click here to view Adrian Dayton’s edition of the Carnival of Trust for July, 2009.

Many many thanks to Adrian for a fine job of hosting; please pop over and give him a look.


What the Pharmaceutical Industry Must Do to Regain Trust

Pharma has been taking it on the chin for some time now.  It’s been targeted by activists, bloggers, politicians and reformers. Next to Wall Street, it’s one of today’s least trusted industries.

But until last week, much of the industry’s response had the flavor of, “if people only knew the whole story,” or “they just don’t appreciate the good we do.”

Fair enough, perhaps.  But no longer good enough.

Last week, the industry drew negative cover-page articles in two iconic, industry-friendly major publications.

Et tu, Advertising Age? From the trade magazine of an industry that benefits enormously from Pharma comes this tabloid-like headline:

Vytorin Ad Shame Taints Entire Marketing Industry


Cholesterol Drug’s Ad Campaign Turns Into PR Nightmare, Fanning Flames of Public Mistrust of DTC.

Reports that Merck & Co. and Schering-Plough Corp. kept under wraps for more than a year findings that Vytorin does not deliver results it spent more than $100 million advertising to consumers is much more than a PR disaster for the drug’s co-marketers. Coming on the heels of a New York Times story that Pfizer’s $2 billion drug Lyrica treats a condition, fibromyalgia, that a lot of doctors don’t think exists, the Vytorin news is fanning the flames of public mistrust for the $5 billion direct-to-consumer drug industry — and the ad business in general.

"The pharmas are in big trouble in terms of credibility," said brand expert Rob Frankel, who runs his own consultancy at "They’re just above Congress and used-car salesmen."

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

But the topper has to be making the cover story on BusinessWeekDo Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good?


Never mind the typically well-researched and well-written critique of the industry; never mind the bad press Merck and Schering-Plough got for the Vytorin data, coming on the heels of the Vioxx lawsuits; never mind the bevy of critical testimonials the article digs up.

The plain fact is, once Ad Age and BusinessWeek put you on their covers—in nakedly negative terms—it’s time for some basic re-examination.  Low trust is not a surprise to the industry—but this is a wake-up call about the failure of the industry’s response to date.

One of the major pharmaceutical firms (because it’s not likely to be PhRMA, the industry’s trade association) needs to find a voice and take a leadership role—to speak what has become obvious to the world outside Pharma, as represented by leading business publications.

The message is this: the only way to resolve the industry’s trust issues is to become trustworthy—worthy of trust.

• Trust will not be regained by “educating” the public.

• Trust will not be regained by “getting the message out.”

• Trust will not be regained by improving your PR; your PR will be improved by regaining your trust.

• Trust will not be regained by framing it as a problem of image, marketing, or perception.

• Trust will not be regained by coordinating, refining or sharpening talking points; the problem is not getting the message out—it’s listening to the market to hear the message coming in.

The good news is, there are a great number of very well-intentioned, smart people in this industry, who are deeply pained at having been demonized the way they have been.  Some are courageously beginning to face up to it.

It won’t be easy for them. Twenty years of success, blockbuster drugs, and an overdose of marketing culture erects barriers to even their good intent.

Further, any gain in trustworthiness must be broad-based.

It won’t be enough just to help sales forces become listeners, rather than shills—though that will help. It isn’t enough to wean physicians from the “consulting” and “education” fees they reap—though that will help. It isn’t enough to deal with the appearance of conflict in researchers and journals’ affiliations with pharma funding—though that will help. It isn’t enough to seek business models beyond patent-stretching, features-tweaking and disease creation—though that will surely help. 

It is an industry whose beliefs and practices have become encrusted, making its untrustworthiness opaque even to those who most sincerely would reform it.

So, what will it take?

• Courage, for one. Which does exist; there are some fine people in pharma.

• Brains, for aother. Again, pharma is blessed. The trick is to turn those brains loose; to use the courage to think boldly, examine anew.

• Transparency is required too, though even that is hampered by layers of regulation brought upon itself by the industry’s own past practices.

• But above all, the industry needs a sense of urgency.  Not just business urgency, but a personal willingness to face some  shame, or disgust, or revulsion; something that comes from the gut and says, “you know, we are better than this; we can do better than this; and I for one have had it.”

I can’t think of any industry where the trust gap between what is and what could be is larger, and where the social cost of that gap is greater. It is in society’s best interest to have a trusted pharmaceutical industry. At its best, the pharmaceutical industry saves hundreds of thousands of lives, and adds quality of life to millions.   We are paying gazillions in cost, red tape, suspicion, and lost or devalued lives because of its absence.

We should all be rooting for this industry to heal itself.

The first step is admitting you’ve got a problem.