Three Things You Need to Know About Trust: Part 2

There are really only three things you need to know about trust. You can pretty much deduce the rest. The three parts are:

  1. Trust is a Two-player Game
  2. Trust Requires Risk
  3. Trust is Reciprocal

Part 2: Trust Requires Risk.

First, there is no trust without risk. Second, only one player takes the risk; this sets up a particular dynamic.

No Trust Without Risk

Ronald Reagan was blowing smoke when he famously said, “Trust, but verify.”  The truth is, if you have to verify, it’s not trust. If it’s trust, then it’s not about verification. (Tellingly, Lenin was fond of the same phrase).

At one extreme, trust is bordered by blind faith, which is unbounded by data or reason. At the other, we have statistics, where risk is strictly a matter of probabilities and assumptions, governed by the rules of mathematics.

Trust lies curiously in between faith and probability – and a little off the straight and narrow of the continuum as well.  A psychological relationship, it involves one party willingly putting itself in harm’s way of the other, with a significant but not perfectly quantifiable chance that the other may abuse the situation. No wonder we speak of it often with metaphors.

People say trust mitigates risk. That’s true, but it’s also true that risk creates trust. Without risk-taking, there can be no trust. We forget this when we try to create trust by eliminating risk.

Why is this important? If you remove temptation or risk, you create an artificial dependence outside of the critical trust relationship. For example, if you render financial institutions completely non-risky by over-doing tick-box compliance, you will also choke off trust. Trust eats risk for breakfast, and becomes stronger for so doing.

As with many things trust-related, this is paradoxical. Trust reduces risk, but it also thrives on risk. Robotic safety and predictability are components of trust, but small ones. A completely mechanical world may be risk-free, but it’s also trust-free.

One Player Takes the Risk

In its pure form, one party trusts, while the other is trusted. In my classes, it’s a running joke I play: would you rather get better at trusting? Or at being trusted? So far, every class has opted to get better at being trusted. Doh! That’s the non-risky choice.

It’s human nature to wish others to take the risk. Sometimes, we’re lucky. The other person asks us out first; the customer shows their hand first, reducing our fears about price; the interviewer shares something personal about themselves, setting us at ease.

If you’re willing to run your business dependent on the kindness of strangers, that’s fine. But if you prefer to make your own luck – or trust – you’re going to have to learn to take risks. As Wayne Gretzky said, you’ll never miss a shot you don’t take; but of course, you’ll never score a goal either.

One of the biggest barriers to trusting is the cult of trustworthiness. The professions in particular like to cloak themselves in the idea of a Trusted Advisor that is strictly about trustworthiness – but not about trusting.  Such ideas include the high-minded virtues of integrity, tell-it-like-it-is courage, and a professional remove. But they frequently don’t encompass vulnerability and emotional risk-taking.  They should.


In the third part, I’ll talk about the reciprocity of trust – how the role of trustor and trustee gets traded back and forth, and what that means for the development of trust.

Story Time: It’s Trust, Therefore It’s Personal

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on ways to lead with trust. Our last story illustrated how one conversation changed everything. Today’s selection highlights  the value of making a personal connection.

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on selling to the C-suite. It vividly demonstrates the value of paying attention to more than just the task-at-hand, and taking the risk to put personal before business.

From the Front Lines: Taking a Chance on Connection

Gary Celli tells a story of the business value of building trust quickly with a C-level client.

“I was working in California for a multi-national high-tech company. I was a project manager at the time, and the project I was leading was rife with difficulties—nothing atypical, just the usual stuff. We were also trying to position additional work with the customer.

“One day, the CIO asked specifically to meet with me. Until that point I had been dealing with his directors, so he and I hadn’t spent any time together beyond a brief interaction at the big project kickoff meeting. You can imagine I was a little on edge about the meeting.

“The first thing I noticed when I arrived at his office was what a mess it was. There were papers all over the place. One chair was so stacked with stuff it wasn’t usable. I glanced around and noticed a copy of the Scranton Journal on the floor—the magazine for my alma mater, the University of Scranton, a small Jesuit university in Pennsylvania. I looked around for a diploma on the wall, but didn’t see anything. So I asked about the magazine.

“It turns out that we were both graduates, now living nearly 3,000 miles away in California. Talking about that really helped break the ice and took the edge off. We spent 30 minutes reminiscing about the school, the campus, the local hang-out bar that all the kids went to. Then we spent about 15 minutes talking about project issues.

“It was a very successful meeting. The bond we had established made it possible for me to glean more information from him and he seemed very open to hearing my perspectives on the project. We got to the heart of the matter in no time. My company also got the follow-on work, and the CIO was a loyal client for years to come.”

—Gary Celli

What’s your next opportunity to make it personal?


Read more stories about trust:


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].

Can They Build a Robot You’ll Trust?

From the Boston Globe, read about Nexi the Robot, in an article suggesting the robot may “furnish a lesson in human trust.” Partly yes; and partly no.

I find two things interesting about it. First, 21 of the first 22 comments on the article are strongly negative. Second, the gist of what the scientists are finding accords very well with commonsense.

Here’s Nexi’s experiment:

By controlling how 4-foot-tall Nexi interacts with people, scientists have a new and powerful way to study the signals that allow people to trust one another, or not, within minutes of meeting.

“There should be some signal for trustworthiness that’s subtle and hard to find, but [it is] there,’’ said David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University and one leader of the experiment.

Nexi offers advantages over using a human participant because people give off subtle gestures, or engage in unintentional mimicry, that can be hard to measure or control, and probably influence whether someone trusts them.  Nexi has many of the expressive abilities of a person, but researchers can tightly control every aspect of her behavior — allowing them to test what nonverbal cues might make her seem more or less trustworthy…

…so far, researchers believe that perceiving trust is not merely a matter of one person projecting a shifty eye or some other untrustworthy vibe; instead it is a complicated interaction in which people may unconsciously mimic one another, and through their own motions learn something about the other person’s internal motivations.

Trust is About Relationship

It may sound trivially obvious, but trust is inherently about relationship. The way we establish trust is by interacting–and seeing how it feels. The mimicry referred to above is science-talk for whether we ‘get’ each other. 

Repeating a phrase, a gesture; it’s what shrinks do too, when they continually ask, “So, does that make you feel ___?” 

Some of you may recall an old computer game called Eliza; programmed in Basic or Fortran, it would announce itself to you as a therapist. It would solicit your input, then spit it back to you with a prefix phrase like, “So, how do you feel when you CHR$YourInputHere$.” (For a typical Eliza session, click here).   Basically, the program just repeats your phrases back to you; yet it gives us the feeling of being listened to.

Over at the NYTimes, another robot story; this one about Paro, a robot modeled after a baby harp seal: 

It trills and paddles when petted, blinks when the lights go up, opens its eyes at loud noises and yelps when handled roughly or held upside down. Two microprocessors under its artificial white fur adjust its behavior based on information from dozens of hidden sensors that monitor sound, light, temperature and touch. It perks up at the sound of its name, praise and, over time, the words it hears frequently.

It’s been successfully used as therapeutic for patients with dementia. It appears to work. No surprise there: it responds. Mimicry again—finding ourselves to be the cause of a reaction by another is essentially affirming. It means we matter. 

What’s Not Amazing About Robot Stories

I find there are two tones struck in most articles about this sort of subject. One is the idea that we have gotten “closer to explaining” some core element of humanity. The other is it’s somehow amazing to discover “how things really work.” As one economist in the Nexi study says, “What’s interesting to me is how mechanical the process of interacting with another being turns out to be.’’

Please. There’s nothing mysterious about it. 

Trust is about becoming related. So are friendship, sex, and politics. We can describe virtually any human activity in physical-chemical terms (see for example the oxytocin-trust effect); but that doesn’t imbue it with meaning, or ‘explain’ it, any more than saying adrenaline drove World War II.

So, people respond to robot baby seals or blue-eyed blinking machines. How is that different from children playing with dolls, men finding some mannequins attractive, people finding panda bears more attractive than snakes, finding one automated GPS voice more friendly than another, or forming very strong bonds with pets? Why do we give cars names, why do we anthropomorphize mice on TV, why was it a snake that Eve spoke to? Because they mimicked engagement with us. And we responded.

Can our feelings be manipulated by machines? Sure; it’s why Thomas the Tank Engine has a smile on his ‘face.’ And if a locomotive can cause us to smile, is it any wonder that a Bernie Madoff can cause us to part with our money?

Not really; our mechanics are quite simple. Knowing the “how” doesn’t take anything away from the mysterious “why” that will always be at the heart of wonder.

Free Medium Coffee and Warm Fuzzies

What did the new Dunkin Donuts store owner do right? The sign says it all…”Free Medium Coffee”.

Do you think he drove traffic to his new store? Lots. I had to look twice at the second line; “No Purchase Necessary."

That’s different.

Free just feels different.

New businesses offer discounts, coupons and rebates all the time. They imply, “We’ll give you a good deal if you come check us out.” Free, on the other hand, says, “We’re willing to invest in a relationship with you and know we’ll need to earn your business.”

Now flip it. How obliged do you feel after hunting for the coupon, clipping it out, sorting it by category and then remembering to use it before it expires? You feel like they owe you the coffee, don’t you? At best coupons and other promotions offer a balanced exchange; at worst, buyers feel distrust about the process. How much pain have you felt due to coupon or rebate issues? One study suggested that 50% of all rebates never get turned in.

Now let’s look since the savvy store manager erected the sign:

Day #1 – On your first visit, you look around as you approach the counter with caution. Suspicious of a catch, you place your order, “I saw your sign and I’d like a free medium coffee.” When the person on the other side of the counter smiles and promptly pours your Dunkin Decaf, you wonder if the other shoe will drop. When you realize there’s no string attached, they just went from stranger to friend.

Day #2 – You know you’re getting a donut with the coffee. Why? Because you feel a strange sense of gratitude for a second cup of free coffee. I bet you never felt a sense of appreciation after using coupons? (By the way, after day #1, you told at least three friends about the free medium coffee because you like to give away free stuff too, even if it’s someone else’s).

Day #3 – “Dunkin Decaf, cream, no sugar Mr. Slatin?” says the lady in a pink and orange uniform. “Thanks for remembering Janice, let me also get a half dozen glazed and a half dozen with sprinkles, an egg, bacon and cheese croissant and a box of munchkins.”

What just happened?

The seller created value by giving you something without expecting anything in return. Did he have a previous relationship with you? No. But now he does. He changed the feeling you had about his product or service from neutral to positive. Warm fuzzies. Why are warm fuzzies important? Well despite popular belief – all decisions are based on emotion and justified by logic. Dunkin Donuts went through your mouth to get to your heart.

What’s your “free medium coffee”?

The Etiquette of Selling

There is such a thing as etiquette.  It isn’t just about Emily Post and table settings, either. 

Etiquette is the rules of the Game of Association Between People.  All people, everywhere. And while not all the rules are written, you violate them at your risk.

One of those rules is that intimacy has a pace and a sequence.  Some things are done only after other things, and usually with a certain elapsed time. 

I know you’re thinking of romantic relationships at this point, and that’s fine; it’s a pretty good case in point.  Some things you don’t say or do until other things are said or done.

We forget that exactly the same rules apply in sales.  Which is precisely the point made by Michael Holt, CEO of the design firm gardyneHOLT in Auckland, New Zealand in the following email he shared with me. 

Michael met a financial planner at an Expat Show in Shanghai.  He spoke for perhaps 15 seconds with the person—let’s call him Joe Planner–and exchanged business cards.  He later received a letter from Joe.  Here is Michael’s reaction:

Hello Joe Planner,

Thanks for your email and I did look at your site. Very comprehensive, although I must say, I am usually put off by obvious stock photography rather than real images of your firm, your people, your office, your clients.  I feel that stock images are trying to hide something.

However, in response to your email, you say that you "remember that we spoke about ways to help me save."  Umm… no we didn’t, Joe. I’m sure that your email is a form letter and you’ve just put it out to me along with many other people.  Do you think that you can build a relationship with me, in offering a customized and tailored service… by commencing with a form letter? Do you think I’ll feel that you’ve given me any more thought than entering me into your sales follow up database?

Can you think of something more critically important to me that my future financial well-being, and yet you want me to trust you with that when you have an incorrect recollection of our opening conversation?  Of course I understand that you’ll have met many people at that event, but why state then that you remember our topic of conversation when you don’t?

I feel that you are following up to a pile of received business cards, including mine, and you’re being a good sales guy by doing the numbers game work. That’s fine and perfectly normal… for a commoditized and process-driven business process.  Except of course, that I’m a person, and not a box.

As it happens, I have a complex set of financial arrangements centering around establishing branches of my firm in 2 countries overseas right now, and where I’ll be living with my family from next year.  All this amidst global financial insecurity.  I’m looking for a partner and advisor that treats me with respect, that asks more than it sells/tells and that doesn’t insult my intelligence with form letters.

Best of luck,

Michael Holt

Michael is simply voicing what we all know as customers.  There is a law of etiquette in sales. Some things you don’t say or do until other things are said or done.

Joe didn’t follow the law of etiquette in sales.  In return he received the predictable consequence–in this case voiced by Michael.

I think Michael said it pretty well.
(BTW, he tells me he didn’t hear back from Joe Planner.)