Three Things You Need to Know About Trust: 1 of 3

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

I’m going to write about each of them in a separate blogpost, but here’s the one-liner version of each:

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

If you understand those three points, you can figure out things like trust recovery, rapid trust creation, and trust-enhancing cultures.

Trust is a Two-Player Game

For trust to exist, one party must do the trusting, and the other party must be trusted. That sounds dirt-simple, until you pick up the paper and realize how much talk about trust simply doesn’t mention it.

How many articles and surveys have you read that talk about “trust” as if it were some simple, unitary phenomenon?  Answer: most.

Those articles that say “trust is down,” “trust in banks has declined,” “people I know are more trusted–” all suffer one great defect: they don’t tell you why the trust is up or down.

It’s simple, if you ask the question correctly. If surveys show that trust in banking is down, is that because banks have become less trustworthy? Or because people have become less inclined to trust? One is a problem of ethics and trustworthiness; the other is a problem of risk-taking, education and fear.

You can’t design policies or laws or actions if you don’t know which problem you’re trying to solve.

If you can’t directly address trusting and trustworthiness, then measures of “trust” alone can’t be trusted – they could be influenced by exogenous factors like GDP growth.  And they are.

Trusting and Being Trusted

Trusting is about intelligent risk-taking.  Being trusted is about trustworthiness.

When someone says trust is really an issue of character or integrity, they’re talking about being trusted, not about trusting.

And when someone says, “trust but verify,” they’re talking about trusting, not about being trusted. (Though notice: if you have to verify – it’s not really trusting).

When you talk about trust in your organization, or with your clients or customers, you would probably prefer that others get better at trusting – to save you the trouble of getting more trustworthy!

We don’t have a lot of control over others’ propensity to trust, though we can certainly influence it.  But we have a lot of control over being trusted. And by far the best way to be trusted is to simply be trustworthy. One way to think about that is through the Trust Equation.

Trust is a Relationship

Trust is a relationship? Well, that’s what being a “2-player game” means. Before you think this is another “Doh” moment, note what it implies. It means the absence of trust is the absence of a relationship. It means when we think about business outside the framework of relationship, we are not thinking about trust.

What do market share, competitive advantage, markets, cost reduction, and value chains have to do with relationships? Not much. And therefore they have little to do with trust.

One driver of the level of trust is, simply, how we view business. Our view of business for the last several decades has been about competition, not about collaboration; about opposition, not about relationship.

A big reason those articles show that “trust is down” is because we have stopped thinking about relationships, and focused instead on competitive marketplaces.

Wanna know why trust is down? Start with the absence of relationships.


Next post: Trust Requires Risk

Good Things Happen When you Swing the Bat

At a talk last week, new friend Petter Østberg told me an old story with a new twist. It takes a great sports metaphor for achievement – and steps it up a notch to leadership.

First, the metaphor at Level One.

If You Don’t Do A, You Can’t Get B

You’ve heard this one before as, “If you leave the putt short, you are 100% guaranteed to miss the putt; never leave it short of the hole.”

Or maybe you know The Great One, Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”  It’s not just about scoring percentage, in other words, it’s also – very much – about shots on goal.

You also know, “No pain, no gain.” “You’ve got to pay to play.” One of my favorites is the thundering voice from heaven that comes down to the whining loser who is kvetching about never winning the lottery: “Do me a favor – first, buy a ticket.”

All these metaphors remind us of the need to take risks. In our misguided efforts to avoid the risk of doing the wrong thing (call that Type 1 error), we end up not doing the right thing (call that Type 2 error). And in life, as in nearly every sport, it is that Type 2 error that ends up being the Big Bomb.

To not take a risk is the biggest risk of all.

Petter’s story started out this way. A deceased dear friend of his helped run the Little League programs in their town. One of the lessons he taught kids was, “Good things happen when you swing the bat.” If all you do is “take” the pitch, you’re likely to end up striking out.

(Apologies to the non-baseball countries out there, but you get the idea).

Good, good. The youngsters are being taught this Big Truth as well, all’s joy in Mudville.

Getting People to Take Risks

But as David Maister points out powerfully in Strategy and the Fat Smoker, the trick is not cognitive. Just realizing you’re fat and shouldn’t smoke doesn’t mean you’re going to stop gorging and emulating a chimney. Would that it were that simple.

The failure of most corporate training programs (not to mention the people who take them) is to believe that cognition implies action. Entire classes of professions (lawyers come to mind) believe that if they can simply understand something, they have acquired the only thing they need to act upon it.

When it comes to algebra, fair enough.  Maybe even learning a foreign language.

But when it comes to altering substantive human behavior, that belief is So – Not – True.

So it is with golf, hockey, baseball, and I’m sure with cricket and futbol. Armchair athletes from the business world nod sagely as they receive this wisdom from Tiger, the Great One, His Airness, you name it.

“Yup,” they say, “that’s just how it is in my world; you gotta take that risk.”

But they don’t. They really, really don’t.

So: how do you get people to take risks?

Leadership and Role Modeling are Key to Change

Answer: you do it through role-modeling, and you do it young.

Back to Petter’s story.

The Little League coach didn’t just encourage his team to swing the bat. He told the kids’ coaches and the kids’ parents to tell their kids to swing the bat, and with the passing of this dedicated coach just before this year’s baseball season, you now hear his mantra – “Good things happen when you swing the bat” – echoed on every playing field in his town.

The kids got the message, but here’s what he told the coaches:

Look, guys. I know you all mean well. But when a kid swings at a pitch a foot over his head, what do I hear you tell him?  “Lay off the high cheese,” you yell, gesturing with your hand high above your head, “wait for a good one – wait for your pitch. ”

And that is just wrong. These kids look up to you. You’re their leader. This is one of the few remaining times in their lives they’re going to listen to someone, and it’s you they’re listening to now.

These players are very young, and they’ll get more coordinated, that’s nature, but they won’t become better batters unless they swing the bat. There are plenty of other people who will teach them over and over the dangers of taking a swing; don’t you add to that.

Because if they wait for life to serve them up “their” pitch, they’ll lead wasted lives, waiting for that pitch. In life, that pitch rarely comes.

Don’t do that to them. Instead, teach them that if you swing, all things are possible. If you don’t, nothing is. Don’t you wish someone had taught you that?

I know I do. Thanks Petter for that story, and lesson.

Trust and the Sharing Economy

What if everyone could be trusted? And everyone became willing to trust?

Unrealistic? Sure, if you insist on all or nothing.

But if we moved directionally toward those goals, it’s not hard to envision significant improvement. Increased trustworthiness, and increased propensity to trust, would most likely lead to:

  • Fewer and simpler contracts
  • Fewer lawyers and lawsuits
  • Less transaction complexity
  • Lower insurance costs

This is not pie in the sky. There is an emerging part of the economy that does precisely this: it’s called the Sharing Economy, or Collaborative Consumption.

The Sharing Economy

The Sharing Economy is composed of assets which were previously owned by single entities (either persons or corporations), but which have been freed up to be used by many. Perhaps the best-known example of the concept is ZipCar.

In principle, the concept can apply to any asset used at less than its full capacity. That includes all manner of goods.  Airbnb has made a business of helping people rent out their homes. Couchsurfing is just what it sounds like.

This can sound like pure 20-something left coast social experimentation, but it’s also gotten the attention of General Motors. It’s not fundamentally different than when McDonalds figured out it could use its under-utilized real estate to serve breakfast.

In fact, the Sharing Economy is resurrecting some 19th century ideas like the Grange Movement that helped stimulate the Great Plains agricultural economy.

For that matter – remember libraries?

Trust: the Backbone of the Sharing Economy

The Sharing Economy is, pure and simple, about trusting strangers. How, in an age of global markets and internet-based communication, can we do that?  Or to make it more personal: what would it take for you to rent your house or apartment for a week to someone from France you met online?  And how, finally, can you make that answer scalable?

That, it turns out, is one of the fascinating aspects of the Sharing Economy.  It doesn’t make sense for each sharing business model to develop its own proprietary database, any more than it makes sense for every mortgage lender to develop its own creditworthiness database.

Hence, the race is on to determine who will develop the FICO score of trustworthiness, the most dependable metric, the database that will provide the underpinnings of a potentially considerable amount of economic activity.

Trust Metrics

I have written a White Paper on this subject: Trust and the Sharing Economy: A New Business Model. [I should add here – full disclosure – I am an advisor to and have a financial interest in one of those players, TrustCloud.]

The Sharing Economy is a microcosm for observing trust concepts I’ve been writing about for years. For example:

  1. Trusting vs. being trusted: If you have an apartment you’d like to rent out, you are the one doing most of the trusting; your question is about potential renters – are they trustworthy? So often missing in general discussions of trust (“trust in banking is down…”), the distinction is obvious and vital here.  What’s needed is trustworthiness ratings of the potential renters.
  2. Reputation vs. trustworthiness: It’s easy to mistake reputation for trustworthiness, and some previous online trust metrics have done so. The result is data that suggest Perez Hilton and Justin Bieber lead the pack in trustworthiness.  Does not compute.
  3. Trust comes in several flavors, and is all about context. Unlike digital recordings, some forms of trust don’t travel well (remember the game of “telephone?”). Or as I’m fond of saying, I trust my dog with my life – but not with my ham sandwich.

In the race to build trust metrics, it’s tempting to over-emphasize the technical aspects of the problem. But in the case of trust (as with knowledge management), the more important problem to solve is to correctly define trust and its indicators.

I’ll be writing more about this in future.


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].

For continued reading check out: Trust Is Not Reputation

Trusted Advisors: Are You Joking?

A doctor, a lawyer and a rabbi all walk into a bar.

The bartender says: “What is this, some kind of joke?’”

Notice: It’s never a manufacturer, a schoolteacher and a dancer who walk into the bar and serve as setup-lines for our jokes.  Instead, it’s those who should be our most trusted advisors: doctors, lawyers, spiritual leaders.

Ever wonder why?

Untrustworthy Advisors?

I am one who trusts.  I strongly believe that the vast majority of people in each of these professions, or callings, can be trusted with my life.  And yet I still find the doctor-lawyer-preacher jokes pretty funny.  Which got me thinking about why these folks are the protagonists of so many stories and jokes.

Here are three reasons I came up with:

1. Because these are meant to be respected professions, it’s easy to laugh at the bad apples and contrarian behavior.

2. Because we need our doctors and lawyers and spiritual leaders to be truly trustworthy advisors, the experience of dealing with them can be pretty emotional.  We are, in many cases, entrusting them with our lives, our money, our most personal family matters and more.

Trust is risky – the very definition of trust means we are taking a risk in relying on the advice, actions or discretion of someone else.  And that can be scary.  With so much at stake, we need the release that humor offers when dealing with serious, scary themes.

3. Perhaps the greatest reason these trusted advisor are so prominent in jokes is that they represent different aspects of ourselves, internal paradoxes we are trying to manage and integrate.  The doctor –the body, or the physical; the lawyer – the head, or the intellectual; and the rabbi/priest/preacher —  the heart, or the spiritual. These jokes are a form of stories—metaphors for aspects of life.

My Musings and Yours

These are my musings about the doctor, lawyer and rabbi who just walked into my bar.  Seriously, now, let’s share a beer and talk this through.

Trusting Delta

From Delta Airline’s Website, Delta’s Force for Global Good

“Delta is firmly committed to our environment, safety, and social responsibility. We demonstrate these commitments in hundreds of ways throughout the world on a daily basis as we partner with our employees, vendors, customers, civic, and non-profit organizations to make a difference in the communities where we live and work. Many of our programs are award-winning and industry-leading. We don’t do them for the awards. We do them because they’re the right thing to do.”

Richard H. Anderson
Chief Executive Officer, Delta Airlines

From the Atlanta Business News, July 27, 2011

Airlines Spoil Fliers’ Unplanned Tax Holiday

Airlines have complained for years that taxes added to ticket prices drive up the cost of travel. But when those tax collections stopped last weekend and airlines had a rare chance to give fliers a break, most opted to keep prices the same and pocket the difference.

For Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, that amounts to be $4 million to $5 million a day in extra revenue, the company said Wednesday.

A Congressional stalemate led to a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration Saturday, preventing the agency from collecting about $200 million a week in ticket taxes.

Delta and other major carriers then increased base fares to cover the lapsed taxes, saying they need the extra money to cover high fuel costs. The result is that travelers are paying roughly the same total price as before, instead of getting a discount from the unplanned tax holiday.

“It just seems like it was the perfect chance for the airlines to throw a bone in consumer satisfaction,” said CEO Rick Seaney…

…Delta’s official statement on the matter: “Given the high cost of jet fuel, Delta has been competitive with other airlines that increased their base fares following the expiration of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration to adjust for the taxes no longer being collected.”

Why Trust Statistics Can Be as Misleading as Crime Statistics

In each pair, guess which city has the higher violent crime rate? 

Lexington, KY vs. New York City    ___

Tucson, AZ vs. Los Angeles, CA    ___

Tulsa, OK vs. San Jose, CA           ___

St. Paul, MN vs. San Antonio, TX   ___

Memphis, TN vs. Detroit, MI           ___

Minneapolis, MN vs. Houston, TX ___

As you might have guessed, the data are a bit counter-intuitive. In each pair, it is the smaller City (listed first in each pair) that has the higher crime rate. Data are from the FBI and the US Census Bureau.

The FBI goes to some trouble to warn against using their data in precisely the ways I just did—to rank cities by their crime rates.   The FBI says:

For example, one city may report more crime than a comparable one, not because there is more crime, but rather because its law enforcement agency, through proactive efforts, identifies more offenses. Attitudes of the citizens toward crime and their crime reporting practices, especially concerning minor offenses, also have an impact on the volume of crimes known to police.

They are quite right to warn. During the Nixon administration, the US government founded the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration within the Justice Department. On the statistical front, the LEAA developed the National Crime Victimization Survey, an antidote to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting. The UCR had simply measured police reports; the LEAA took a survey approach, by contacting the whole population. Results varied widely, particularly in cities like Philadelphia, with police forces long suspected of under-reporting crime stats.

Trust Measurement and Definitions

Trust statistics are even more suspect than crime statistics, I suggest. In part this is due to definitional issues. On Edelman PR’s Tweetlevel tool, the New York Times twitter account scores 94.2 on trust—lower than Perez Hilton (94.3) and Justin Bieber (the King of Trust, at 97.5).

Trust Measurement and Volume vs. Frequency

But more importantly, human beings are likely to confuse buzz, spin and hustle with underlying reality; raw numbers with frequency.

Ask yourself: compared to ten years ago, with how many people outside your immediate family and co-workers do you interact daily?

# of Daily Interactions

a. 10 yrs ago

b. today

Walking around








Twitter, Linked-In












 Now:then (b:a)



Go ahead, fill it in. And let us know what your two columns added up to, this could be an interesting social statistic. (My own scores were 43 vs. 225, for a now:then ratio of 5.23).

Your now:then ratio indicates the number of Trust-Pointä opportunities you have in a given day: in my case, over five times what I used to have.

My bet is that, on any given day, I will have more instances of distrust than I had ten years ago. And yet—on any given day, I will be disappointed by far fewer people proportionately than I was ten years ago. 

Now: suppose I answer a trust survey that asks me, “How trustworthy do you find people these days?” 

·    How many of us answer “not as much as before” because we’re thinking of the increase in the absolute number of untrustworthy interactions?

·    How many of us answer “more than I used to” because we’re thinking of the decrease in the frequency rate of untrustworthy interactions?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. Nor, I suspect, do the people answering the survey themselves. Which suggests, if anything, that the people doing the survey haven’t got much of a clue either.

Caveat statisticator!

Why Pulling Yourself Up by Your Own Bootstraps is Hard

I used to suffer from a particularly bad version of one part of the human condition—a tendency to see things as all about me. I tried like crazy, in many ways, to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I’ve gotten, well, better; but it wasn’t because of my bootstrap pulling.

I also reached a difficult point once years ago in studying the pedal steel guitar. I was taking private lessons from a real master, and trying very hard on technique. He gave me tons of advice (including most particularly to lighten up), and I tried my darnedest hard to take it all—pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. I never did get better, and finally sold my guitar a year ago.

Pulling On Our Own Bootstraps Just Burns Leather and Calories

Think about the physics of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It’s an impossibility–which of course is why we like it as a metaphor. But life is not a metaphor, while it is constrained by physics.

So—why doesn’t bootstrap-yanking work? And why do we keep trying it?

The Pedal Steel Story

In my guitar case, the immediate cause was clear. I was trying too hard. I’d try to play free and easy—I’d try so, so hard. Which of course was the problem. 

My hands would cramp up, I was trying to so hard.  And I knew trying so hard was the problem. That made it worse, because I knew it was ‘just’ a mental issue. Which made me worry more, which made me try harder. (Substitute golf if you prefer a more conventional metaphor).

It was a vicious circle; a negative feedback loop as bad as any that Jimi Hendrix generated. And knowing the problem didn’t help solve it. It was not one of those unconscious incompetence things. My knowledge got in the way. It was one of those “you can’t solve a problem at the same level the problem was created” problems.

I still love pedal steel music. (Everyone knows Jerry Garcia’s lick on Teach Your Children, but Garcia knew he was a rank hack by Nashville standards: go listen to every note played by Tom Brumley on Buck Owens‘ original version of Together Again.) I just don’t try to play anymore.

The Life Story

In mid-life, I became aware that a lot of my problems were caused by my tendency to overly see things around me as being about me. In the terms I later developed in the Trust Equation we use at Trusted Advisor Associates, I suffered from high self-orientation.

A few years ago I suddenly remembered something I used to say back when I was “in it.” When someone close to me would say something critical about me, and I took it way too personally—even though I knew I was taking it too personally–I would describe the condition as “like having someone point a gun at my head and telling me to calm down.”

At the time, I was just trying to explain to people why I felt paralyzed to think my way out of my self-obsession. Now, in the rear-view mirror, I see it differently.

I see now it was the perfect metaphor, because the metaphor, and my own use of it, were both stuck squarely in my old paradigm. Because everything was about me, I just didn’t have the tools to imagine something that wasn’t about me. My prison was self-limiting because it was self-defining. 

The Bootstrap Story

You can’t talk about this sort of issue in a linear kind of way; you have to deal with metaphors and paradoxes. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems probably apply here, though frankly the math is beyond me.

I’m reduced to platitudes, which I find reassuring in their simple memorability. In addition to “you can’t solve the problem at the level it was created,” I like:

·    When you dig yourself into a hole, first, stop digging;

·    A lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client;

·    Try not thinking about pink elephants, and

·    You empower what you fear.

My only solutions boil down to three:

1.    Give up. Really. Just stop. If it’s not meant to be, stop fighting. Universe 1, you 0. You’re really not at the center, after all; act like it. Just go be you.

2.    Laugh.  Make sarcastic jokes about it. Get a kick out of your insanity. Find the sick humor in it all, and focus on the humor, not the sick.

3.    Ask for help. Not with the problem, but with the meta-problem. Then accept it. See step 1.

Abuse of Trust: Anatomy of a Breakdown

From this blogpost’s title, you’re probably assuming this is about the BP oil spill, or the SEC’s settlement with Goldman Sachs, the recent financial legislation, or a new perspective on Bernie Madoff.

Instead, I want to shine a flashlight on l’affaire Sherrod. From a trust perspective.

For those of you outside the US, the bare narrative is this: Fox News played a videotape of a speech by a federal government employee, which appeared to be racist, and called for her resignation. In very short order, the government did indeed fire her, without checking on the facts.

The Shirley Sherrod Case

Those of you in the US, I’m not going to link here to any more background. The newspapers are full of it.

What I do want to suggest is to offer a case example of how trust breaks down, in the only terms that matter: yours.

Here is a link to the original Fox video; the first 45 seconds are about this story.

Here is the coverage of the video, on July 20—a quick read.

Now: most of you know what came next. But you almost certainly know it from secondary sources. Rarely, these days, do we actually get to make up our own minds from primary material.

We have an opportunity here to contrast punditry with original source material. Ask yourself what you know of the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Google it a bit if you want. Then compare it with the actual video, here.

In the same vein, may I strongly suggest that all of you seize this opportunity to view Ms. Sherrod’s original video in its entirety. It’s not a light request: the entire video lasts 43 minutes, and the ‘hot stuff’ is scattered throughout the middle section. 

I still suggest you look at it. This is a teachable moment. But don’t be taught by what you hear from the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or the NAACP, or pundits of the right or of the left–the signal-to-noise ratio is huge. Instead, seize this opportunity to teach yourself.

I won’t say anymore just now; I’ll add my own comments in a few days. 

There is a ton of learning to be had by each of us watching the original source material—at roughly the same time the opinion makers are all ossifying the official learnings. 

There is to be had here learning about how we come to trust, who we trust, how much power we grant to those we trust, and the benefits and risks of trusting others.

So–if you can find time to watch the original, please share with us what you learned from it.

Trust, Obligation and Winter’s Bone

The other night I saw the movie Winter’s Bone, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and richly deserves any of the future honors it’s sure to collect.  

The movie takes place in the mountains of the Missouri Ozarks. Ree Dolly is the 17-year-old girl whose father has skipped bail, leaving her to support her two younger siblings and an Alzheimer-addled mother.

If you believe in character development as the mark of a good movie, this one lays down the marker early. As they go to bed hungry, while neighbors down the road skin a deer, her brother asks why they can’t ask the neighbors for some. Ree tells him coldly: “You don’t ask for what oughta be given.” In a sense, the movie consists of challenging that statement with the obligations of kinship and society.

Only in retrospect was it clear that the plot had been foreshadowed in the movie theater itself. It was one of those downtown New York art theaters that fill up on a hot weekend afternoon.

We settled in two seats from the end, and a seat away from a single man, who had another empty seat on his other side. As the theater filled up, a woman sat near us, and then asked, down the row, “Would you all mind everybody moving down one seat?” 

I looked at her quizzically. “I’d like to be able to sit with my parents and sister,” she explained, “and if you all move down, we can take the first four seats.” We grumped a bit but moved down. The man now beside us didn’t move.

“Would you mind moving too sir? Please?”  

The young man said, “Yes, I would mind, thanks.” I settled into my seat to watch what happened next.

“You see, I’d like to be able to sit with my family,” the woman explained. “Would you mind, please?” Silence. “Would you mind moving over, sir?” she said, more loudly.

“I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again, that should be enough. Yes, I would mind. How many times must I say it?” he said.

The older man, sitting on the end of the row in front of us turned around and said, “You must be from New York, I suppose, not moving and all.” Silence from the man.

“Sir,” the woman, “I’m trying to ask very nicely…” “And you’re still getting the same answer from me,” the man interrupted. “You might want to stop talking about it now.” 

Which she did. Though I must say the exchange stayed on my mind through the movie.

And as I said, the movie was about the clash of “Don’t ask for what oughta be given,” vs. the obligations we hold to others. And it made me think.

Here’s where I ended up.

If you never ask, you have no reason to complain when you get nothing. And sometimes you have a right to ask, even on fairly general principles.

On the other hand, there are some limits to asking. As far as I’m concerned, the man would have been within his rights to say, “Look lady, I came here early to get the one seat I wanted to sit in. You came here late, looking to get four seats, and to get them by begging. 

“And when you didn’t get them by begging, you proceed to extortion by guilt-tripping. Sometimes I move over. Today I don’t. At the last you should stop it.   At best, you owe me an apology.”

What do you think? What do we owe each other? What right do we have to ask? Where are the boundaries? And where are the lines that are meant to be crossed?

Put another way, who can you trust? And how and when do you have the right to ask for trust?



A Trust Bubble?

I read a blogpost about capital ratios entitled The Mystery of Capital.  A commenter to that post introduced an intuitively appealing term I hadn’t heard before: the “trust bubble,” as in

“what has popped is not really the housing bubble, nor even the credit bubble, but the trust bubble. And as always when a bubble bursts, we all rush to the opposite extreme. Now, no one trusts anyone else, economically or politically, and no society can function without trust.”

Credit for the line goes to commenter jrw, whose real name I can’t deduce from the un-hyperlinked initials. It’s an intuitively appealing turn of phrase, and I wasn’t the only one who found it a grabber.

But like so many things trust-related, it doesn’t bear up under examination. A bubble is when things inflate—we have a bubble in tulips, or in gold, or in tech stocks. They get over-valued, then the bubble breaks.

So—did trust get vastly overdone? Was trust over-rated, before it took a crash? Listen closely, and you can be forgiven for being confused; that is language crafted to obfuscate, not to clarify.

Another such grabber line is “trust but verify.” Like light beer, it sounds great–but has less meaning. Let me explain.

Deconstructing Trust

Let’s think very simply about how we use the word ‘trust’ in its most concrete sense. I trust you; or I don’t. You are trustworthy; or you’re not. If I (trust you), and you are (trustworthy), then the result is—trust.

In the above sentence, “I trust” is a verb, "trustworthy" is an adjective, and the resulting “trust” is a noun. Trust is a result, an outcome: it’s not a thing in and of itself.

Yet we have all manners of surveys purporting to measure ‘trust.’ What is it they’re actually measuring? In long run social surveys, ‘trust’ is often used to indicate people’s propensity to trust, i.e. the verb meaning from above.

But in other surveys, for example when we say “trust in Goldman Sachs is down,” do we mean that people are less trusting? Or do we mean that Goldman Sachs is less trustworthy? All we know from “trust in Goldman is down” is the end result.

Identifying the Real Trust Problem

You can’t create good social policy without knowing whether the problem lies with the trustor, or the trustee. Do we have a trust-ing problem? Or a trustworthiness problem?

Professor Roderick Kramer of Stanford doesn’t necessarily state that the problem lies in trust-ing, but that’s where he focuses on for solutions. Consumers can best protect themselves by practicing ‘tempered trust.’

That doesn’t mean he thinks Bernie Madoff is blameless, of course. But if one’s attention tends to be placed on what Madoff’s victims could have been done differently, it tends to draw attention away from Madoff’s assault on trustworthiness. Regardless of Kramer’s intent, the perhaps unintended effect is like what the mortgage brokers’ and credit card industries have said—the solution to abuse is better consumer education.

I want to say to those industries (please imagine here a full Lewis Black rant ‘n rage tone), “No It’s NOT! The solution to abuse is—to stop the abusers! Not to better educate the abused!”

While business surveys often fail to distinguish between ‘trust’ and ‘trusting,’ there are social trends scholars who are extremely precise about their measurements of trust, and about what trust means. A great example is Dr. Eric Uslaner, of the University of Maryland.

When Uslaner says trust is down (and he does), he means long-term propensity to trust, or what I’m calling trusting-ness.  Long-term as in decades and generations. And propensity as in do you tend to leave the door unlocked, do you impute bad motives to strangers. It’s a lot more psychological, broad, and deep-based than a temperature-taking about a specific institution or person compared to the same question a few months prior.

Again: what is it we think we’re measuring when we purport to measure trust?  It makes a difference.

Ronald Reagan Had It Wrong

He may have had it wrong many ways, but here I’m just talking about when he said, “trust, but verify.” Like the “trust bubble,” it sounds great. But in fact it plays on another ambiguity about trust. This ambiguity comes from the relationship between trust and risk.

If you think about it for a moment, there is no trust without risk. If there weren’t risk, we wouldn’t call it trust, we’d call it “probabilistic decision-making.” Bluntly put, if you have to verify, it ain’t trust.

There is one component of trust that is an exception to that statement—the idea of ‘reliability,’ as in ‘I can trust that pipeline won’t blow’—in which trust very much is linked to verification. But it’s the mechanical sense of trust; it has to do with engineering, physics, the behavior of impersonal forces. In all the other senses of trust—which touch on ideas like intentions, deception and transparency, and vulnerability—verification has precious little to do with it. Reagan was just speechifying.

Finally, there’s the comment that started this blogpost. Was there a bubble in trust? In trusting? Or in trustworthiness?

There certainly was not a trustworthiness bubble: quite the contrary—trustworthiness was declining with every level of derivative abstraction.

Nor does it seem to me there was a ‘trusting’ bubble. I don’t think people’s propensity to trust financial institutions was increasing at the same time general social trust was steadily declining.

And if both trustworthiness and trusting-ness were undergoing declines,then–how could there have been a "bubble of trust?"

The vocabulary of trust is seductive, but the meaning of trust is slippery. Be careful to think simply and clearly when it comes to broad generalizations about trust.  Bad stuff went down; it’s critical we think clearly about what is to be done.