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.