Decomposing Trust

Continuing the “semantic diffusion” theme from last week, let’s talk about Trust. Another good example of a very fuzzy term that we tend to use a lot and could use some decomposition. So what determines whether we trust someone? Here are a few definitions:

The Trium Group defines it as:

Trust = Competence + Reliability + Motive

In “The Trusted Advisor” Maister, Green and Galford define it as:

Trust = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy)/Self-orientation

Devin Vodicka defines it as:

Trust = Competence + Consistency + Compassion + Communication

Brene Brown defines it as:

Trust = Boundaries + Reliability + Accountability + Vault + Integrity + Non-judgment & reciprocity +Generosity (BRAVING)

It’s likely that the similarity in the definitions is a result of sharing some common ancestry, however, comparing their differences is even more helpful in distilling their common core.

My synthesis suggests that the Maister definition is probably closest to the core definition, which consists of four components:

  1. Competence (or credibility) — having the expertise or skills to do a particular role. Early in the relationship, a person credibility “on paper” is used as a proxy, and as the relationship develops, their track record of exercising good judgment becomes a better indicator. Implied in this definition is the idea that our trust in a certain person can vary by domain. For example: I may trust my Dad to fix the leaky faucet in my bathroom, but I may not trust him to do my taxes. Several elements in Brown’s definition are specific behaviors that demonstrate interpersonal competence. For example: respecting one’s boundaries or holding information shared in confidence.
  2. Reliability (or consistency) — best explained was doing what you say you’re going to do, “walking the talk”, or honoring your word. Brown’s “accountability” and “integrity” also tie into this component.
  3. Motive (or intimacy, or compassion) — perhaps the most challenging component of trust. Confidence that the intentions behind someone’s action are aligned with my own and mean me no harm. Or at a slightly more superficial level, that they are clear/transparent and I know what they are.
  4. Self-orientation — this is the missing component in the Trium and Vodicka definitions in my opinion. It is partially captured in Brown’s “generosity”: “believing the best in the other even when they disappoint me”. My level of trust in someone is not simply the objective observation of their actions, but the result of the way I interpret them. What’s good/bad judgment? How reliable does someone need to be in order for me to consider them reliable? When their motive is unclear, do I assume positive intent, or assume the worst? Both sides share responsibility for my level of trust in someone. My inclination to trust someone (my self-orientation to trust) is a factor of my genetic dispositions, my past experiences with other people and other domains, and the conscious choice that I’m making on how to interpret their actions.

Where does it all take us? To this definition:

Trust = (Competence + Reliability + Motive)/Self-orientation

So how do we strengthen trust?

First, and foremost through our actions: honoring our word and developing true mastery in our domain. Brown offers good advice on the interpersonal front and Zak has some good advice on the managerial front.

Second, as Vodicka suggests, through our communications. Making our own intentions clear (explaining the “why”), asking others to clarify theirs when they are not clear to us, and engaging in dialogue around trust in a way that acknowledges our responsibility to the situation.

And last, by shifting from reaction to response when it comes to our own self-orientation

Decomposing Trust

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