The Chemistry of Trust

In God we trust, all others need a formula says TalentSprint's Santanu Paul

Published 4 years ago on Oct 17, 2016 Read

To make a compelling case for trustworthiness in public life, we need look no further than this year’s US presidential election. Throughout the course of a bruising campaign, the two major party candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have made varying versions of the same claim again and again. You cannot possibly entrust my terrible opponent with the exalted office of the president. With their slanderous speeches and toxic tweets, they have treated an incredulous public to a debate on relative trustworthiness. I may not appear trustworthy to you, dear voter, but please do vote for me. After all, my opponent is even less trustworthy than I am.

Trust deficits also plague our professional lives. I remember a funny sign hanging behind the cash counter at an American knickknack shop that said ‘In god we trust, all others pay cash'. The line reminds us that we find it hard to trust the people we transact with. Reciprocally, we must appear untrustworthy to people who transact with us. We valiantly solve for this endemic distrust by employing armies of accountants, lawyers, company secretaries, and consultants to save our skins. We voluntarily pay through our noses, by way of steep transaction costs, by insisting on legal agreements, contracts, guarantees, collaterals, audits, and other instruments.

Pause for a moment to consider. How blissful would the world be if we were genuinely trusted? Like our intelligence quotient (IQ), imagine a trustworthiness quotient (TQ) that could signal how trustworthy we are. To be perceived by others as trustworthy has strategic benefits. If my startup is more trustworthy in the eyes of customers relative to competition, it will grow faster than its peer group. If as a corporate leader you earn the trust of team members, when you start a new company tomorrow, you will find top talent at your doorstep ready to take a pay cut to work with you. As an entrepreneur, if you earn the trust of your investors and bankers, you will command a valuation premium and enjoy a lower cost of capital. Sweet and abundant are the fruits of trustworthiness.

The question arises, is there a theory of trustworthiness? Must the very idea of trustworthiness remain amorphous and subjective? Or can it be made concrete and objective? Can we deconstruct our trustworthiness into its essential components, like a chemical formula or a mathematical equation? Can we improve it by simply applying a formula? The answers to these interesting questions can be found in a classic book titled The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Greene, and Robert Galford. And their answers are an unqualified yes. Like a chemical compound made up of constituent elements that appear on the periodic table, our trustworthiness is built out of four essential elements of human behavior. Once we get the formula right, we can enhance our trustworthiness. We can attain mastery over the chemistry of trust.

The first such element is C, for credibility. Credibility stems from what we say. It is the distilled essence of our competence and expertise, and our effectiveness in communicating it to stakeholders. It arises from the words we use and how we use them. If our credibility is high, we tend to receive compliments of a certain type. He knows what he is talking about. She has great clarity of thought. It is important we get his insights on this matter. She made a very crisp presentation. Greater credibility leads to greater trustworthiness. It is a direct correlation.

The second element is R, for reliability. Reliability arises from what we do. It is our ability to meet our commitments and do exactly what we advertise. It manifests as compliments of another type. Her projects are always on time and on budget. He gets stuff done. If she is in charge of the branch, we can rest easy. Having him run the finance department gives us peace of mind. Once we are perceived as reliable, our trustworthiness rises as a direct consequence.

The third element is I, for intimacy. Intimacy indicates how we connect. It is our ability to empathize with other people, to find common ground with them, to share in their happiness, to offer them comfort in times of distress, and to be nonjudgmental at all times. Compliments flow in the following form. He genuinely cares. You can confide in her and share your concerns. If you are having a tough time, you will feel better after talking to him. Your secrets are safe with her. High marks on intimacy translate to greater trustworthiness. Another direct correlation.

The fourth and final element is S, for self-orientation. Self-orientation is a fancy word for selfishness and self-serving behavior. Instead of compliments, self-orientation brings rebuke and criticism. He is focused on himself and not the customer. She is not creating a win-win situation. He will walk all over people to get to the top. All she cares about is to meet her sales targets at any cost. Evidently, all human beings are genetically wired to detect self-orientation in others and be repelled by it. Therefore, any hint of excessive self-orientation on our part automatically diminishes our trustworthiness. It is an inverse correlation.

So there you have it. A formula for your trustworthiness quotient, courtesy Maister, Greene and Galford, that says TQ = (C+R+I) / S. We are continually beaming our trustworthiness into the world, whether we know it or not. And the best way to bolster it is to keep increasing our credibility (C), reliability (R), and intimacy (I) and keep decreasing our self-orientation (S). Of course, not everyone can be equally disposed when it comes to the four essential elements. For example, grandmothers are loved because they are high on I and low on S. Politicians are disliked because they are low on R and high on S. The Reserve Bank of India is respected because it is high on C and R. Telemarketers are despised because they are low on C and high on S. We become better parents to our children when C and I go up. Our consulting practices flourish when C rises and S falls. At the end of the day, the permutations and combinations may be endless, but the core formula always holds. The physics of our interactions is powered by the chemistry of our trust.

Santanu Paul is co-founder of TalentSprint, a Youth Career Accelerator