With apologies to David Letterman’s signature skit series of a decade ago, we’d like to borrow his title to highlight a few misunderstandings about the nature of trust in business.
Here’s our list, followed by some comments about the flaws.
Do these flawed views of trust merit actually being called “stupid”? You be the judge.
1. Trust is synonymous with “check-the-box”sustainability practices or “greening” your organization.
2. Blockchain is a road to trust.
3. Loading up corporate communications with trust words du jour elevates brand or organizational trust
4. Elevating data security is a pathway to trust
5. Trust can be chemically induced.
While all these ideas represent flawed views of trust, they are not all “wrong” in the same way. Exploring how they are flawed tells us a lot about what real trust concepts, tools and metrics look like.
In each case that follows, we’ll explore the flaw in the concept; then we’ll give a proactive definition of trust and some valid metrics for evaluating it.
Trust-as-sustainability. If your business is promoting sustainable practices, good for you. You are helping contribute to a more ecologically aware world and doing something to save the environment. You may also be creating some positive vibes for your brand, and even — dare we say — being rewarded in the real for-profit world for doing so.
But don’t confuse that with trust. The most powerful form of trust is personal, not institutional. Policies — whether for sustainability or copyright or money-laundering — are about as impersonal as you can get.
Second, if you are indeed making money by being sustainable, congratulations — but you’re also raising questions about your motives. If you’re “doing good” in order to be “doing well,” then your motives are sus-pect, and are actually reasons for most people not to trust you.
Blockchain. First, count us among those who see the virtues of block-chain quite apart from its dubious connections to digital currencies — certainly Bitcoin. Blockchain is a legitimate and powerful new tool, with valid applications that are only beginning to be scoped out.
That said, blockchain doesn’t enable “trust” — it brings clarity and efficien-cy to the anti-fraud capabilities of commercial networks (e.g. documenting supply chains, or eliminating the need for title searches in real estate).
You are no more likely to “trust” a realtor or seller with blockchain or with-out: you are simply more sure of the precise level of impersonal systemic risk of fraud inherent in the business.
Again, the most powerful form of trust is personal. Those who trusted Bernie Madoff were betrayed by Mr. Madoff, not by the system in which he operated. You can reduce systemic risk by regulation — or by block-chain — but the decision to trust an advisor is ultimately a personal one. You can’t regulate or technologize your way to personal trustworthiness.
Vocabulary. It is true that consciously altering an organization’s shared vocabulary can have an unconscious effect by nudging people’s perceptions and behaviors — including for trustworthiness.
But words alone don’t do the job. In fact, if words are the only effort tak-en, they can backfire — words are also the favored tool of the best propagandists in history. Context, intent and behaviors also matter.
Words divorced from action — including merely perceived action — actively fuel cynicism. In a world where, broadly speaking, trust is on the decline, cynicism is rising. In the face of cynicism, words without action are pre-destined to produce the opposite of what was intended. CEO “activism” can also create a “backfire effect” when the words are directed at a third party while the CEO’s headquarters are burning.
Data Security. In most of the Western world (China is a partial outlier on this one), data security is increasingly important. At the simplest level, this is about fear of having our identities stolen and misused with economic consequences. But it also extends to concerns over privacy.
It’s tempting to think greater data security adds to trust. But this is the same issue we saw with blockchain, above: a reduction in quantifiable risk is not essentially about trust.
Worse, getting closer to risk-free doesn’t mean we’re increasing trust — it just means lower levels of risk in our trust decisions. Since trusting is essentially a positive inclination to take a risk, higher levels of data security merely remove roadblocks: they don’t say anything about positive levels of trustworthiness.
Chemical Trust. We’re talking about the popularly cited papers on Oxytocin, sometimes called “the trust molecule.” It’s oh-so tempting to believe that trust can be reduced to a neuro-chemical phenomenon. But there are two powerful reasons to resist that temptation.
And even if it were true — that we could isolate a particular set of chemicals (or synapses, or even genes) which “explain” trust — we likely wouldn’t trust the resulting “trust.” Merely describing something in reductionist physical terms doesn’t account for the full human meaning of trust.
The only practical application of chemical trust would be through chemical induction. But consider: would you trust someone’s declaration of lifelong friendship if they said it under the influence of five martinis? Would you trust your child with the babysitter if said sitter showed up high as a kite on weed?
Defining Trust. So far, we have only nitpicked at “stupid” definitions of trust. It’s time for us to be more proactive, and to put our own stake in the ground.
- Trust is a relationship. It takes two. It doesn’t happen unilaterally; it’s not real until a trusting party meets a trustworthy party.
- At the organizational level, trust must be built one stakeholder at a time.
- Organizations don’t build trust — they can only facilitate, or hinder, inter-personal trust. It’s up to the people who work for them, and that begins with leadership.
This means a lot of popular statements are fatally imprecise. If, for example, you see a statement like “trust in banking is down,” should you infer?
That banks are less trustworthy?
That people are less trusting of banks?
Or some composite measure of both?
Nonetheless, it is possible to speak more clearly about trust.
- The General Social Survey has for years measured the personal propensity to trust.
- Trusted Advisor Associates has developed the TQ Trust Quotient Self Assessment, which measures personal trustworthiness; and the Four Trust Principles, which are organizational guides to personal behavior in trust-relevant situations.
- Doug Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soup, has created the Conant Flywheel, with “inspiring trust” as the outcome of six drivers. It is note-worthy because it emphasizes the personal nature of trust, and the critical personal role of leaders in creating it.
- Trust Across America has developed the FACTS Framework, which measures corporate trustworthiness.
- Trust Across America’s Trust Alliance has also created TAP, a 12-point guide to organizational guidelines — also about the personal role of leaders in creating a trust-based organization.
Other great trust models exist for measuring trust at the individual, team and organizational level. In fact we have combined them into a new Ebook called “Best Trust Models.”
Organizational trust. If, as we have argued all along, personal trust is stronger than institutional trust, then what sense does it make to talk about trust at the corporate level?
That is a very good question, and one that most trust researchers fail to address — it may be the “stupidest” trust trick of all. Merely focusing on corporate reputation, sustainability, “rules” or other corporate attributes does not address the core, powerful, personal level of trust — the most powerful form.
Our definition of organizational trust addresses the issue head on.
A trust-based organization is one in which people behave in trusting and trustworthy manners toward each other, and toward all stakeholders.
The right way to think about trust is that it is all driven and experienced at the personal level: the role of the organization is to help those personal experiences become trust-positive.
Barbara Brooks Kimmel, pictured above left, is the CEO and Cofounder of Trust Across America-Trust Around the World whose mission is to help organizations build trust. She also runs the world’s largest global Trust Alliance and is the editor of the award-winning TRUST INC. book series. In 2017 she was named a Fellow of the Governance & Accountability Institute, and in 2012 she was recognized as one of “25 Women who are Changing the World” by Good Business International.
Charles H. Green, above right, is an author, speaker and world expert on trust-based relationships and sales in complex businesses. Founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates, he is author of Trust-based Selling, and co-author of The Trusted Advisor and the Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. He majored in philosophy (Columbia), and has an MBA (Harvard). He has authored articles in Harvard Business Review, Directorship Magazine, Management Consulting News, CPA Journal, American Lawyer, Investments and Wealth Monitor, and Commercial Lending Review.