Trust theory.

Trust is the foundation of everything that we do.

When we cannot trust, we experience anxiety – and most people will make significant changes in their lives to get trust back. Simple examples include the impact on your daily life of being unable to trust the opening hours of a store, or changes you make to your route choice when you know one means of transport is not trustworthy. In economics, all specialization and trade depend on trust, and all risk management is fundamentally about how we can create trust in circumstances where we wouldn’t naturally find it.

Trust is ultimately about vulnerability. Vulnerability occurs when there is a potential for loss that is greater than the potential for gain. When we trust, we become vulnerable to whatever or whoever we have trusted. If we are not vulnerable, there is no need for trust.

The most useful definition of trust that I can find comes from the work of Aneil K Mishra who defines it as “one party’s willingness to be vulnerable to another party based on the belief that the latter party is 1) competent, 2) open 3) concerned, and 4) reliable.”

Competence

You have to be good at what you’re doing for people to trust you. This means that you need to demonstrate expertise – and is also one reason why people from professions that require significant learning (doctors, engineers etc.) have high trust scores – people trust that the significant learning ensures they are competent. An interesting side point to this though is that you can gain the perception of competence by association, surrounding yourself with competent people can give an aura of competence in areas where you may not have it – and obviously, advice from experts is always of value.

Openness

Openness is all about people understanding how you are thinking, and why you are doing what you are doing – and knowing that it has some level of truth about it. In tough situations, people are more likely to trust people who help them understand how they are thinking about the situation, and how they are thinking about making decisions about the situation. This helps people understand a likely path and gives them some understanding of what the future will look like.

Concern

Concern is the belief that the person you are trusting wants you to be successful in your endeavor, and that they do not want to take unfair advantage of you. Concern is a balancing problem – concern will always balance between the interests of yourself and whoever you represent and require performance from.

Reliability

Reliability, while last in the order, is contributed to by each of the previous factors and it is simply that people do what they say they are going to do. That’s not a difficult concept for anyone to master – but it does run deeper. Reliability doesn’t mean that you can’t change your mind – the perception of reliability is built up over time and can have many levels. The idea that you were unreliable on something that you said does not necessarily mean that you were unreliable on having real concern for someone, and acting in it – quite the opposite in some situations.

Conceptually, trust is simple. Why is it useful to understand Trust under this framework? Most truly disruptive organizational breakdowns, failures of brands and failures of people to find needed support are failures of trust. The research though is in this case, quite clear – demonstrate that you are competent, open, concerned for the outcome, and reliable – and people will trust you, your brand and your product.

* Aneil K Mishra’s paper “Organizational responses to Crisis: the role of mutual trust and top management teams” can be found here –  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/35508350_Organizational_responses_to_crisis_The_role_of_mutual_trust_and_top_management_teams

*Sam Crosby’s book “The Trust Deficit” is also a good read and covers much of this subject material in a political context – https://www.amazon.com.au/Trust-Deficit-Sam-Crosby-ebook/dp/B01DYDFNRO

Author: Karl Melrose

Thinker about how to think about economics, security, risk, technology and incentives. Out to solve every optimising problem, out to make sure my thinking gets better, every day.

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