During a recent design thinking workshop in which the participants addressed the issue of creating social capital through new media, I observed a great deal of discussion focused on trust—building it, keeping it, deepening it, avoiding the loss of it—with respect to users of the company's online services. There’s no question that in the new world of wireless connections, trust is an important issue, no matter what line of business you might be in. (It’s undoubtedly why social media expert Chris Brogan titled his bestselling book “Trust Agents.”)
It was the right issue to dig into. And since for the better part of a quarter century I’ve been fortunate to serve as a trusted advisor to a number of individuals, teams and organizations, I have a few thoughts on the topic of trust in the context of business. My meandering route home along the Pacific Coast Highway in southern California gave me the chance to mull it over a bit more deeply. Here’s what I think I know.
To begin with, trust is difficult to define. It’s hard to find a good and guiding definition. My working definition goes something like this: Trust is the belief that those upon whom we rely will realistically meet the positive expectations we have of them.
But here’s the thing: that simple definition raises some fairly difficult questions, because implicit in the definition is the notion of risk. Trust and risk don’t exist without each other. Trust can’t grow unless we place ourselves in a vulnerable position. How do you gauge the degree of trust in any relationship if you haven’t put it to the test? How do you determine whether you’re right to trust something or someone unless you risk let-down?
One thing seems fairly certain: we can neither artificially design trust nor demand it from others any more than we can declare ourselves trustworthy. In fact, we may experience suspicion and skepticism if we so much as attempt to do so. Messages along the lines of “trust me” almost beg others not to. So, we need a rather elegant strategy to solve the conundrum of trust.
I believe the approach is twofold: First, give compelling reasons for others to trust us and what we provide. Second, give no reasons for mistrust. We have to model trustworthiness while at the same time extending our own trust, simultaneously extinguishing any possibility of mistrust. Given the fleeting and fairly shallow nature of so many of our online experiences today, unless we’re the only game in town, if we screw up even once, they (our users and customers) may leave and never come back.
What helps, I think, is to have a few practical toeholds that help guide our actions, understanding that no two relationships, connections or situations are the same. Three elements come to mind that require balancing: consistency, competence and caring. These are the three C's of trust.
Consistency. Trust requires consistency because we can’t trust anything or anyone that we can’t repeatedly count on. Inconsistency erodes trust because it’s not predictable, dependable or reliable—it creates doubt, which is a signal not to trust. If we say one thing and do another, if we don’t hold ourselves responsible and accountable for following through on promises made, if we don’t offer transparency and enable others to know exactly where we stand, there will be no trust.
Competence. Trust requires competence because we can’t trust anything or anyone that can’t solve our problem, or get the job done. If we don’t have the capability to accomplish what others expect, there can be no trust. Incompetence—defined simply as long on promise and short on delivery—erodes trust, because it undermines credibility. When we are untested and unknown, establishing credibility begins with demonstrating competence.
Caring. Trust requires caring because we can’t trust those we believe don’t care about us. Caring is the softer side of trust, the most intangible, and often the most difficult to demonstrate (and growing more difficult with each new technological advance). But the practical aspects of caring aren’t complex. We just need to exhibit sincerely the kinds of behaviors that tell others we care: responsiveness, confidentiality, empathy, objectivity, collaboration, self-disclosure, attentiveness, etc.
Without a better understanding of the dynamics of trust and the incorporation of these three elements in healthy doses, we stand a good chance of not only missing the mark, but putting trust—and thus long-term viability and success—permanently out of reach. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to underestimate (and often by wide margin) the importance of trust in whatever products or services we design and deliver.
A final concluding anecdote. I remember as a teenager racing home to eagerly share the latest neighborhood gossip with my family around the dinner table. I relayed with great excitement my tidbit of scandal, which of course I had embellished. My father, a man of few words, gave me a quick glance and needled, “You don’t believe that, do you?” “Why wouldn’t I?” I replied.
With barely a pause between bites, he responded simply: “Consider the source.”
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.