An Oldie But Goodie: The Trust Equation

In personal relationships, trust is the foundation upon which everything else is built.  Whether it’s your spouse, sibling, person who walks your dog, best friend — there would be no relationship without trust.  And it starts with getting to know the other as a fellow human being, identifying common threads and values, and spending time together.

In the same vein, trust should be the foundation of our professional relationships.  This includes your manager, your direct reports, your client, your vendor, your peer.  Yet we don’t spend enough time consciously focused on building trust at work.  We each have so much to get done, that it can get easy to view others as an ‘object’ — an enabler, a blocker, a nuisance — instead of as humans with feelings, stressors, and other perspectives.

Yet, the value of having trust can be very high.  As in personal relationships, it creates an environment of safety where people can be themselves and ideas can be shared freely; it allows for more attentive listening and acknowledgement of others’ views; it invites constructive feedback to help spur growth and development in each other.  All great things.  Wouldn’t work be so much better if we trusted those around us and vice versa?

So how do you build trust?  There are lots of ‘tips’ and gurus out there who tell compelling stories about trust, but the one that resonates with me most comes from an old McKinsey training workshop:  the Trust Equation*:

Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation

In other words, you can build more trust if you are more Credible, Reliable, and Intimate, and are less Self-Oriented.  What is meant by these terms?

  • Credibility:  Believability of the things you say.  Can ↑ by committing to and saying things that are fact-based or that you can deliver on.
  • Reliability:  Dependability of your actions.  Can ↑ by always following through on your commitments and obligations.
  • Intimacy:  Acceptance of each other as whole beings worthy of respect and consideration.  Can ↑ by spending time getting to know each other outside of work, as individuals.
  • Self-Orientation:  Focus of your attention on your own needs versus the other’s needs.  Can ↓ by considering what the other person is going through, needs, wants, is concerned about.

It’s funny to think you can boil down something like trust into 4 variables, but these variables are hard to build and easy to lose — just like trust.  But you have a lot of control over how Credible, Reliable, and Self-Oriented you are; Intimacy is a little trickier to manage, in my opinion.  Pulling these all together to build trust requires an investment of time, so don’t expect instantaneous results.  But the longer you spend building it, the more ‘at-bats’ you’ll have to demonstrate Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy, and even, Self-Orientation.  So it’s time well-spent.

Why wouldn’t you take steps to build Trust?  Time, sure, is a factor, although at least Credibility and Reliability don’t require additional time, and are traits you should be exhibiting regardless, as a good employee.  

What’s the downside of trust — either at work or in personal relationships?  It’s the loss of trust — the possibility of betrayal, of being the sucker who got the raw end of the deal.  It’s losing face…  but losing face for what?  For extending more trust than the other person deserved?  In my opinion, that just means the other person is the villain, not that you were a fool.  

I’ve been asked, “But what if I don’t like the other person?”  I don’t have a super-satisfying answer here.  Disliking someone makes it much harder to build Intimacy and decrease Self-Orientation, but you can try to find common threads that enable you to identify with the person more by asking questions about who they are, what matters to them, what they worry about.  You’d be hard-pressed to continue to dislike someone who opens up to you on these types of topics, which hopefully will lead to the right outcomes.  But the Trust Equation doesn’t guarantee a high-trust relationship.  It simply gives you a few tools to build trust over time, and is a framework through which to think about your interactions with others.

*The Trusted Advisor (Maister, Green, Galford, 2001).

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