Two Paths to a Trusted Business

Macro photo of tooth wheel mechanism with TRUST, RELIABILITY, CONSISTENCY, COMPETENCE, INTEGRITY and SINCERITY words imprinted on metal surfaceLet’s try a thought experiment. Imagine that you’ve been put in charge of an effort to improve the level of trust that people have in your organization (which could be a company, an institution, a business unit, whatever).

You have two choices, I would suggest. One I’ll call “outside-in,” and the other “inside-out.” Both have a role, but one should get more emphasis.

The outside-in approach might involve hiring a PR or consulting firm to help you, and focuses on such issues as messaging, metrics, process and procedures design, publicity, incentives, market research, designated trust officers, behaviors, KPIs and the like.

The inside-out approach involves improving the personal trustworthiness and the propensity to trust for all employees of your organization.  It also involves messaging (though mainly internal), but as well such methods as leading-by-example, education, role-modeling, performance reviews, and mentoring.

Which works more quickly? Probably the outside-in approach. Which lasts longer? Probably the inside-out approach. Which provides the biggest impact? Again, probably the inside-out approach.

What’s Going On Here?

What’s going on here is the interplay between institutional trust and interpersonal trust. It raises questions like, “Which comes first?” “Can you have one without the other?” And, “How do they interact?”

If your objective is to improve the perceived trustworthiness of your organization (the thought experiment I proposed above), then do you best get there by working at the institutional level (“outside-in”) or at the interpersonal level (“inside-out”)?

I’m not trying to set up a forced dichotomy. In most cases you should use a little of both approaches. This is not an “either/or” situation, it’s “both/and.”

BUT: my decidedly unscientific research suggests that the typical business response is to lean far more heavily on the “outside-in” approach, and to downplay the “inside out” approach. This is unfortunate.

It’s unfortunate because people – customers, clients, employees, the public at large – trust institutions only narrowly, whereas they trust people more deeply. If I ‘trust’ FedEx, it doesn’t mean I trust the FedEx driver to babysit my grandchild; but if I do trust that driver, I will probably trust FedEx too.

I trust an institution to behave consistently in certain ways, to have certain policies in place, to provide relevant expertise and capabilities. I trust people to do the same things – but I also want more from them.  I want people to be flexible, good listeners, to be curious and empathetic and to care about my experience. These are traits that only people can have.  If the people I deal with have these interpersonal traits of trust, I am more likely to generalize and assume good things about the organization they are part of.

If I’m right about that, then why do organizations default so heavily to the “outside-in” approach to institutional trust? I think it’s because the toolset of business these days is overwhelmingly analytical, data-driven, and behaviorally biased. We are taught to “trust but verify,” and that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” An entire online generation is being taught to eschew “common sense” and “gut feel,” yet to pursue automated imitations of those very human instincts.

Improving reliability and expertise is easy; you can come up with dozens of metrics and qualifications. These can be measured and trained for. Not so when it comes to empathy, curiosity and paying attention. They are implemented by “messier” human processes like imitation, Socratic questioning and stories. And yet, the presence of those abilities not only creates trust with an individual but reflects on the institution as well.

Suppose you are the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, facing concerns about ethical violations. Do you a) promulgate legal guidelines (and get critiqued for lack of enforcement rules), or b) gain consensus among the individual Justices that “going forward, we’re just not going to behave in ways that even hint at raising ethical questions, and if you have a doubt about an issue, surface it with the group?”

Suppose you are in charge of customer acquisition for a SaaS consulting firm. Do you develop an outreach program that a) solely and self-centeredly promotes the track record and capabilities of your firm, or b) recognizes and emphasizes something unique and interesting about the potential customer as a key part of reaching out to them?

Suppose you are head of LinkedIn’s efforts to increase networking and linkages between members. Do you create a program that a) automates a linking process with a self-seeking message header like “I’d like to connect,” or b) encourages members to seek out and comment on the members’ relevant shared spheres of interest?

And here’s one about which you don’t need to make suppositions – Wells Fargo, which endured a self-inflicted scandal in 2016. It brought down one CEO, and then another three years later, and the bank incurred billions in fines. Wells Fargo ran two big marketing campaigns admitting wrongdoings and focusing on how the bank was rebuilding trust.

Sounds good, but how did that play out? As the new vice chairman of public affairs said in 2023, “you can’t tell a story that isn’t true…if you’re going to say what you’ve done, or what you plan to do, you better be doing it.” In his telling, this classic outside-in approach was false, and still failing. In early 2023, the bank paid $1 billion to settle a shareholder lawsuit that accused the firm of overstating its level of compliance with orders stemming from the 7-years-prior scandal.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that “problems aren’t solved at the levels at which they’re created.” It applies here. If you’d like your organization to be more trusted, don’t rely just on institutional tools. Instead, remember organizations are made up of people, and they interact with people. Operate at that level as well.

Personal trust doesn’t exist solely outside of institutional trust. Among other things, it is a necessary condition for achieving institutional trust.

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

2 replies
  1. William Benner
    William Benner says:


    Thank you for this article as it clearly points out something I believe is often missing in conversations about corporate and institutional trust.

    From my experience and client work using our Triscendance Trust Assessment for Leaders and Teams (TTALT), I agree that starting with an inside-out approach is the best way to enhance overall institutional trust even though it takes longer to achieve.

    It starts with interpersonal trust and each employee and leader plays a significant role in how trust or distrust is demonstrated within teams and organizations which then spills over to the external perceptions of customers and stakeholders. This “sense of can I truly trust” eventually shows up in how customers see the company and whether they’re encouraged to interact further or look elsewhere for the services and products they need.

    Coupling this approach with a “sincere desire to care for and understand” a customer’s needs and how they perceive the company by looking from the outside-in is also important, but not necessarily what will make the positive difference desired.

    I like how you described the inside-out approach which “involves improving the personal trustworthiness and the propensity to trust for all employees of your organization. It also involves messaging (though mainly internal), but as well such methods as leading-by-example, education, role-modeling, performance reviews, and mentoring.”

    To help create an ongoing process to cultivate trust within organizations, it would be nice to think this inside-out approach could become be a regular and recurring topic for continuous learning and conversation among and between all levels of employees, management, and leadership. In effect, when it becomes an embedded part of team culture and the organizational fabric for all to see and experience internally and externally.

    What’s often missing for companies is not having a common language and trust framework that everyone knows, supports, truly buys into, and that aligns key interpersonal, team, and organizational trust behaviors and expectations of one another. Even then, individuals will have different levels of propensity to trust, but at least the effort will have been made to bring about a common understanding of what it takes to build, maintain, and even restore trust once broken.

    For our TTALT team trust survey, we utilize a framework called the “3 A’s” of trust which relate to the Assessments of Trust (i.e., Care, Sincerity, Reliability, and Competence), Actions of Trust (Build, Maintain, and Restore), and Attentiveness (“our readiness to engage in, and provide the opportunity for, conversations related to the current levels of trust in a relationship. It also shows our willingness to address any concerns that may arise”).

    As consultants, we all have our own definitions, models, and client approaches, however, if you’d ever like to compare our respective approaches advocating trust work, please let me know. I’d also be pleased to introduce you to my trust business partner Richard Hews I saw you also suggested readers check out the Trust, Inc. book that Barbara Kimmel edited and which we both have a chapter. I plan to reconnect with Trust Across America this year.

    Best Regards,

  2. Charles H Green
    Charles H Green says:

    Apologies for the late response. Sounds like we think in very similar ways (or should I just say you’re obviously quite smart :-)). Your points about a shared common language and model are very well taken, IMHO.


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