Who Do You Trust? What Trust Rankings Really Tell Us

You’ve probably noticed, from time to time, survey results on trust—which professions we trust the most, which institutions, which messages, channels, and so forth.

The most recent such data—from Nielsen— tells us that web users around the world trust the recommendations of others more than they trust advertising.

Other surveys tell us we put “a person like yourself” ahead of all others. 

Still others tell us the relative trustworthiness of various professions.
There are two messages in these surveys—one explicit, the other implicit.

The explicit message is the headline—we trust doctors more than newscasters, we trust blogs more than advertising, and so on. Those data tell things like “who’s winning,” and how Australians differ from Chinese. Interesting. Food for marketers’ thought. And great for parlor conversation.

But the implicit message is about the nature of trust itself. Which is not at all obvious.

Imagine a survey asked people “How closely are you related to other people?” Now imagine findings like: “Parents top the relation list; followed closely by children and siblings. Cousins are found to be less related, about tied with in-laws. Neighbors and TV sitcom families appear to be the least closely related.”

Silly, because such a survey just re-enacts a trivially true definition as if were a new empirical discovery.

But isn’t trust much the same? We all have an instinctive sense that we trust certain people more than others. If I know you, have history with you, have shared personal moments with you, converse with you, work and play with you—then the odds are far greater that I’ll trust you than I’ll trust someone two degrees away on LinkedIn.

So when Nielsen tells us that consumers trust consumers more than advertising, the headline is about the low trust scores of advertisers.  But perhaps it shouldn’t be.
Perhaps that finding rates a giant, massive “Duh!”

Perhaps the headline should be, “trust linked to personal relationships.”

A major business trust issue today is how to “scale” trust. What can be done to networks of strangers to approach the high level of trust we see in more personal relationships?

Some efforts focus on increasing network size—Amazon’s algorithm for predicting what books you’ll like, for example. It works very well—for predicting books you’ll like. But for whether you should buy a house now in this market?  Hmmm.

Other efforts focus on track records. Of those who recommend buying a house now, vs. waiting—who has the better record of predictions? This helps with investing—but do you trust your investment advisor to recommend restaurants?  Or to play matchmaker?

Still other efforts increase the bandwidth available for us to evaluate others: Facebook and owe a lot to the ability to let people be who they are, let it all hang out—and share it with others.

The most successful networks will be those that replicate the full human experience—providing us broad markets, rich data—and deep exposure to the humanity of the others that lets us create bonds.

Those are the networks that will end up being trusted. And end up scoring high on trust surveys.

It’s no secret.

Social Network Mapping and Trust

John Rolander, one of the good people at Katzenbach Partners , pointed me to a fine piece in Fortune Magazine about their work in OQ—Organizational Quotient. (July 23, 2007).

Katzenbach is a leader in identifying and analyzing the “constellation of collaborations, relationships and networks” that are responsible for much of an organization’s real effectiveness, and which is quite distinct from the formal organizational chart.

“Jon Katzenbach [calls the] ability to toggle between both power structures ‘organizational quotient,’ or OQ.”

Katzenbach helped Bell Canada scour 50,000 employees to identify “14 low- and mid-level managers who embodied the mentality the company sought: committed, passionate, and competitive. Here’s what they found:

The subjects shared the ability to get people to trust them and to solve problems rather than complain about them. “These people have incredible influence. It’s like the Life Cereal commercial—Will Mikey eat it?”

You could say this is yawningly obvious; but only in the rear-view mirror. Which makes it worth emphasizing.

First, these are 14 massively influential people. Influence doesn’t happen by accident. These people attract others. To be proper, others are attracted to them.

What attracts others? Their perceived trustworthiness; and their propensity to solve rather than complain.

As Phil McGee (who I’m appointing as a business guru) puts it, “All business problems boil down to two: a tendency to blame, and an inability to confront.” That’s the negative way to put it.

The positive way to put it is, business works best when driven by people who take responsibility, and who are trusted by others.

There is an awful lot of stuff written about how to be trusted. Listening. Eye contact. Networks. And so on.

We tend to forget that true trust is only earned by being trustworthy—which means, literally, worthy of trust. All else is fakery. Ask someone why they trust so-and-so, and you’ll always get two things near the top of the list—"he has my best interests at heart," and "I can trust him to speak the truth."

"Blame" reeks of falsehood—the word has connotations of evading responsibilty, lying about accountability. Valid assignment of responsibilty is devoid of “blame,” and the true measure of validity is whether one is willing to take on responsibility oneself. Clear assignment of responsibility speaks to both putting principles ahead of self-interest, and to speaking truth rather than spinning it.

So the presence of blame is a sure-fire signal of the lack of trustworthiness. How can you trust someone who will not take responsibility?

All of which is to say, mapping of social networks reveals something very fundamental—trust nodes.

Well done.

[Footnote: I must add, there is also a small irony here. As Katzenbach says in the article, “the informal organization is most helpful when you’re trying to influence behaviors that are more emotional than they are rational.”

The irony lies in the need for most organizations to have rational proof of the power of emotions over rationality.

Then again—whatever works ]

Trust Networks vs. Search Engines

Those who understand the technical aspects of current hot themes like social networking (think Facebook ), are all a-twitter over a post last weekend by Robert Scoble, a (deservedly) influential tech blogger.

Nominally about whether Google will be dethroned by some upstarts , his post has generated many over-heated comments of the “Yankees suck” variety. (A notable exception is “Turbo” Todd Watson’s posting on the subject).

But commenters aside, Scoble is pouring some very good old wine into some very promising new bottles. The issue is: who do you trust?

Do you trust:

a. A compilation of information (encyclopedia, Blue Book, Google, classified ads, Yellow Pages), or

b. Your friends?

The best known net-based version of the former, of course, is search engines.

The net-based terminology du jour for the latter is trust networks—think Old Boys’ network, bowling leagues (going way back), and more recently Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn and Plaxo, and—todays’ hot item—Facebook.

The right answer is—as it always is in these cases—it depends. In this case, it depends on what problem you are trying to solve.

If you’re trying to buy a used car, you probably value masses of information over your friends’ recommendations, no matter how smart your friends are—because you’re trying to assess a market. The bigger and more liquid the market you seek to tap, the more you’ll value objective, massive information. Score one for the compilation model of the world.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not you should talk to your daughter about how she’s making the mistake of her life by going out with that no-good idiot, you don’t care about markets—you care about wisdom from people who know you and your life. Score one for a network of friends; the trust network.

In the real world (I mean outside the blogosphere), there is no shortage of either kind of problem, and it will always be so. These are merely chapters in the ongoing book about how we come to trust, and to make use of new technologies to do so.