Trusting: the Other Side of Trust

Much has been written about trust.  However, it’s often not clear in the writing whether the subject is trust, trustworthiness – or trusting.  If trust in the government is down, does that mean that the government is less trustworthy? Or does it mean that people are less inclined to trust?

Most of my work has been about trustworthiness (e.g. The Trusted Advisor). Other people write more overtly about trusting – a good example is the HBR article ReThinking Trust, by Stanford Professor Rod Kramer, which focuses on the danger of trusting.

Some people write about the big subject of trust itself – the end result of the interaction between trustor and trustee. A fine example is Francis Fukuyama’s classic Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.

Finally, many other sources end up talking about all three; think Covey’s Speed of Trust, or Bob Hurley’s The Decision to Trust.

The Power of Trusting

The sources above are largely academic. In the popular press, by far the most common topics are trustworthiness and the state of trust itself (trust as the result of an interaction between trustor and trustee). Throw a dart into a pile of 100 popular press articles on trust, and you’re likely to find Congress, investment bankers, and the Madoff-du-jour scandal as the subject.

This means most public policy debates focus on trustworthiness.  Most examples are negative; hence trusting is positioned as cautionary, i.e. watch out for car salesmen, lawyers, etc. The moral of the story is tut tut, another untrustworthy group, watch out.

And all this focus on negative examples of trustworthiness is having an effect on people’s inclination to trust. How could it not! And that is a terribly unfortunate thing. Because the scarce trust resource increasingly is not trustworthiness, but the willingness to trust.  We need to start focusing on the trustor, not just on the trustee.

The power of trusting is enormous. When it comes to trust, there is an answer to the chicken and egg dilemma of which comes first, the trustor or the trustee?  The answer is trustor.  Consider:

  • Until one party decides to take a risk and trust another, trust does not come into existence
  • Trusting has a profound impact on trustworthiness – think “the fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him,” or “people live up or down to the expectations of them”
  • Trusting is inherently an act of optimism; a decline in trusting in the business world drives down innovation, and prevents collaboration and alliances.


Trust, Trusting and Trustworthiness

The word ‘trust’ gets used in many ways.  Consider the simple joke, “I’d trust Bill Clinton with the economy—just not with my daughter.  On the other hand, I’d trust George W. Bush with my daughter.  The economy, not so much.” 

Considering that we tend to use one word to cover so many duties, it’s surprising we ‘get’ the meanings as well as we do.

The Word ‘Trust’ Gets Used Imprecisely

Let’s break it down.

There are three ways we talk about ‘trust.’ 

1.    There is trust, the verb: to trust.  The one who trusts, the act of trusting. 

2.    There is trustworthiness, a noun.  A characteristic or trait of the one who is trusted.

3.    There is trust, the noun: a quality of the relationship between people, the level of trust that exists between them.

Here is Steven Covey, a well known writer on trust, using the same word to describe all three situations: 

•    “Trust is a competency…There is a risk in trusting people, but there is a greater risk in not trusting them.”  (Meaning 1, the verb: to trust)

•    “Trust is a form of both character and competence….Investors invest in and customers buy from brands they trust.”  (Meaning 2, the noun: trustworthiness).

•    “Low-trust, low-performance organizations typically exhibit [certain] cultural behaviors” (Meaning 3, the noun: the state of trust).

We usually infer the intended meaning well.  Still, it creates confusion about trust itself when we are not clear. 

I hear all the time, “Trust is nice to have, but this is a tough environment, and you can’t take that kind of risk around here.”  When someone says that, I know they are confusing trust and trustworthiness. 

To trust someone is to take a risk.  There is no trusting without risking, in fact.  (As long as we’re talking Presidents, Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” was a bit of political rhetoric: if you have to verify, it ain’t trust.)   

Yet to be trustworthy is the opposite of risky.  Others strongly trust those who are honest, believable, candid, unselfish, high integrity, direct, and so forth.   It’s a lot less risky to be trusted than it is to have people suspicious of you. 

The confusion grows when people focus on trusting or being trusted to the exclusion of noticing high-trust environments (where people both trust and are trustworthy). 

You Can’t Manage Trust if You Can’t Define It

To accurately assess, describe, measure and manage trust, we have to get clear on the concepts, the language. Trusting creates trustworthy people, who then attract more trusting from others; pretty soon, you’ve got a whole lot of trust going on.

You can’t build trust if you don’t know which meaning you’re playing with.  Try figuring which meaning of trust is intended in this typical quote from the Edelman Trust Survey: 

Trust in business around the world is, generally, lower today than it was a year ago, according to the Edelman report. And, generally, CEOs and other leaders aren’t held in especially high esteem.

Does this mean buyers are less willing to trust these days?  Or that businessmen are less trustworthy?  Or that the state of trust in the world has declined? Is there causality here or not?  If so, what drives what?

And therefore what are we to do with such data?  Educate people about risk-taking?  Step up regulatory enforcement?  Or increase engagement between business and customers? 

Asking “do you trust XYZ” over time offers the appearance of precision—“it’s up X%, it’s down Y%”—but without any context, it’s hard to say what it all really means.  

It’s no surprise that “trust” has such a “soft” image; casual use of words creates the impression that trust itself is soft and fuzzy, hardly the stuff managers should busy themselves with.

The fact is, all three meanings can be defined, measured, taught and managed—but only if we’re clear just which meaning is being measured and managed.

For examples of metrics that deal strictly with trustworthiness, see The Trust Equation – in its online self-assessment form, the Trust Quotient (go on, it’s free!).

For an example of how to teach and manage trusting, see this on the risk management tool of  Name It and Claim It.

For a good example of the state-of-trust, see a sampling of economists’ and social scientists’ views earlier this year at Trust Trust Trust.

I trust you’ll find me trustworthy enough to help increase our mutual trust.