Trust Metrics: Breaking It Down

How can you measure trust?

Consider a simple equation:

Trusting  x  Trusted  =  Trust

In other words: if someone is trusting enough to take a risk (the trustor), and if someone else is trustworthy enough to be worth that risk (the trustee), then when the two parties are a “match” – and you get “trust.”

Suppose you could quantify each.  Note that there is more than one way to get the same result for “trust.”  For example:

  • a “trusting” rating of 8/10 and a “trustworthiness” rating of 3/10 might give a “trust” score of 24 out of 100 – 8×3;  and
  • a “trusting” rating of 4/10 and a “trustworthiness” rating of 6/10 would give the same “trust” result – 4×5, or 24.
But what does this mean?

Most of the Data Doesn’t Support Decisions

Most of the trust data out there (think Edelman Trust Barometer, or Pew Research) isn’t about either “trusting” or about “trustworthiness.” It’s simply about the end result, trust. And that’s not very enlightening.

Suppose we get a series of data points about trust, and that they show a decline over time, from 26, to 24, to 20. Does that mean that the trustors got more gun-shy and less willing to trust?  Or does it mean that the trustees became more shady, and less trustworthy?

Measuring only the result – trust – is like saying the results of the Yankees vs.Tigers game was 3-2 – without telling you the winner. It’s like saying that the average household income of a small town is $500,000 – without mentioning that one of the residents is a billionaire. It’s like saying that unemployment is down – without mentioning how you count those who are not looking.

If you were to pass laws about regulation – you might want to know the driver of decreased trust. If you were building a marketing campaign – you might want to know which factor shifted. And if you were observing a pattern between two firms,  you might want to know why trust declined – was it because of less trusting, or because of less trustworthiness?

There’s a lot more to be said about this rarely observed but simple distinction: let me just point out that there are in fact some sources of data that are actionable and help us get at causal drivers, rather than just identifying results.

The Trust Matrix

The matrix below shows some of these relationships.

1. In the upper left box – Individual Trusting – academics are well aware of the General Social Survey, a fifty-year database with an impeccable pedigree, which permits some fascinating conclusions about our propensity to trust others. Hint: it’s gone down. We’re becoming more and more suspicious in principle.

2. In the box Trustworthy Individuals, the pre-emininent database may be my own company’s Trust Quotient. With over 25,000 data points, a time-proven insight called the Trust Equation, we can now state categorically which gender is more trustworthy, which of the four trust factors are harder drivers of trustworthiness, and the relationship of trustworthiness to industry.

3. What about the critical question of organizational trustworthiness? This is a question  we keep trying to answer by reference to trust surveys, which are unable to yield the answer.  The best source I know of is Trust Across America’s database of publicly traded US companies (they’re working on expanding it). They have a composite definition well-grounded in commonsense and objective databases, and some compelling data about the correlation between corporate trustworthiness and economic performance.

4. The bottom left box – an organization’s propensity to trust – is something for which I’m not aware of any data.  Would someone please correct me if I’m in error?  My working hypothesis is that this box has declined considerably.

JP Morgan himself may have lent on the basis of character, but the industry he left behind lends only on secured assets. Except, of course, when they lay off risk through ever-increasingly complex transactions.

Companies routinely won’t even trust small subcontractors, insisting that they self-insure against things like falling on sidewalks. It seems to me that corporations consider a propensity to trust to be roughly tantamount to stupidity. It’s hard to be a trusted organization if you systemically and systematically distrust your stakeholders.

5. Finally, the last column – measurements of trust itself – needs conceptual clarification.  When we look at data that says “trust is down,” there are four meanings.  We might be referring to trust between individuals, trust between organizations, or trust between organization and individual (with two variations depending on which is trustor and which is trustee).

To Mean What You Say, Say What You Mean

Any of us – not just researchers or academics or survey-takers – can contribute significantly to the discussion of trust simply by being clear about what we mean. If you want to say that bankers have become banksters, then point to data about the decline of trustworthiness on the part of banks – not to composite data that blurs the trustor-trustee distinction.

If you want to say that trust is up in the sharing economy, then use data that talks about the propensity to trust, not just the end result of trustor-trustee interactions.

I have a feeling that some significant chunk of the debate about trust could be improved by simply using clearer language to reflect clearer thinking.

6 replies
  1. Bob Whipple
    Bob Whipple says:

    Hi Charlie. Good piece as always. On the Trusting Organization, one place to look for data is the Top 100 Companies data. If you see an organization consistently in the top 10 on this list, I suspect they have demonstrated a high level of trusting as an organization. One organization I can think of in my neck of the woods is Wegmans. They consistently show up as a top company, and I can tell you from first hand that the culture is one of very high (not perfect) trust.

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Bob, thanks for the comment.
      I share your enthusiasm for Wegman’s, they seem to me to be first-rate at trusting.
      Re the Top 100 companies list, I suspect like you there is a lot of cross-correlation with a propensity to trust, but it’s third hand data at best. I’d like to see data that identifies the trusting component of top performance, rather than just settling for the inference that it’s there (though if I had to bet, I’d bet with you).

  2. Rich Sternhell
    Rich Sternhell says:

    Charlie, an interesting post, but one that gives me some concern. I fear that a focus on the measurement of trust will lead to similar challenges faced by corporations when their attention is driven by metrics rather than the products, customers and services they provide. Regardless of the Supreme Court, I do not believe that corporations are people. In order to increase “trust”, I as an individual, must be both more trusting and trustworthy. Organizations wishing to increase trust, must do the same, from both the top down and the bottom up. I would much rather see companies concerned with trust focus their attention on the behaviors within their organization than on any set of metrics that will lead to interminable meetings with powerpoint presentations consisting of charts, graphs and proposed courses of action. No doubt it will be a boon for consultants, but I have little hope that their will be any improvement in “trust”

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Very thoughtful as usual, thanks.

      I completely agree with you about the danger of over-reliance on metrics. Business has time and time again made the mistake of focusing on the metric rather than on the thing the metric was supposed to measure, and there’s good reason to believe too many businesses would make the same mistake with trust.

      That said, just the ability to speak more precisely about metrics would be a step forward, even if no data were collected. We have a meaning problem as much as a metrics problem, at present.

      • Rich Sternhell
        Rich Sternhell says:

        I would argue that we need to speak more precisely about trust, trustworthyness and trusting and agree on what we mean when we use those words. I’m not convinced that being able to speak more precisely about the metrics will lead us to a place where trust is improved. But I guess if we didn’t have metrics, we wouldn’t need MBAs and then where would we all be?

  3. BarbaraKimmel
    BarbaraKimmel says:

    Rich- in our research at Trust Across America we find that:
    1) Companies rarely know where they stand in terms of trustworthiness. It’s not really a term that is bantered around the C-suite except in cases where trustworthiness is the cultural norm like Wegmans.
    2) Companies want to hold on to the notion that if they are “compliant” they are trustworthy.
    3) The weak link often breaks the chain in our FACTS model. In other words, a company can have strong financials, accounting, transparency and sustainability, but if they have a low corporate governance score, that’s an identified risk that should be addressed, rather than ignored. It’s a symptom of a larger disease.

    If companies had more metrics that could not only keep them out of “trust trouble,” but also identify their strengths, I say bring on the metrics!

    Barbara Kimmel, Executive Director
    Trust Across America


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