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How to earn trust (and how to know who can be trusted)

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Work (and let’s face it, life) can be a minefield when it comes to relationships. One of the thorniest issues is how to earn trust – and how to know who can be trusted. For Power Up, our expert – executive coach Malvika Singh – shares her tips on building trusting relationships. She’s also got some practical advice on how to figure out who you can trust.

the airport test

I was in an airline lounge the other day, and wanted to leave my bag and coat and go wash my hands. I caught myself scanning the lounge for who I thought would be the most trustworthy person with whom to leave my bag and coat.

Which made me stop and think: how was I judging who is trustworthy? I know from research and experience that it is not possible for trained professionals to spot a liar and thief based only on appearances and first impressions. Yet here I was, fully confident in my ability to judge the trustworthiness of random strangers.

It made me think about trust, trustworthiness and the role they play at work.

As a quick exercise, think of a person you trust, and reflect on why you trust them. Then think of a person you don’t trust and reflect on why you don’t trust them.

does trust really matter at work?

What is trust and why does it matter?

Well, let’s start with why it matters. What is the cost of low trust in relationships and teams at work? It doesn’t take a rigorous scientific attempt to quantify this. I would simply venture to say that it costs me twice as much time and emotional distress to accomplish things when trust is lacking, if not more. Trust matters for efficiency, if nothing else, in the workplace.

there are different types of trust

There are, of course, at least two different types of trust. First, there is trust based on beliefs about competence. I trust you are capable of doing the job you’ve been assigned.

Second, there’s vulnerability-based trust. I trust you as a person, a human being. I can show my vulnerability, and you will make it safe for me to do so by not judging me or using it against me.

trust is both situational and relational

Trust is relational: it happens between two or more people. And it’s also situational: it’s not a universal quality that a person uniformly possesses. Said another way, there is basically no such thing as a person who is absolutely trustworthy. Their mother may trust them, but their direct reports may have a very different view. And both may be right.

a formula for defining how to build trust

In his book The Trusted Advisor, author David Maister shares his “trust equation.” It has become well-known, and it’s still one of the best ways I’ve ever seen trust described and conceptualized. Despite my hard core science background and affinity to Dr. Spock, I initially had a skeptical reaction to the very idea of it. How can an ephemeral, emotional idea like trust be accurately captured in a mathematical equation? I’ve since come to find this particular equation very useful.

Maister’s equation is as follows:

T= C x R x I/SO

how to read this formula


It’s the derivation of all the elements on the other side of the equation.

C= Credibility.

Meaning, I know what I am talking about. I believe you know what you’re talking about. This is all about competence. And about demonstrating the ability to say what I know and also what I don’t know.


Meaning, I do as I promise. When I ask you to do something, I know it is going to get done. Another way to think about this is what the “say-do” ratio is in someone’s actions. How often do they do exactly what they’ve said they’ll do? This can take the simplest of forms – like being on time, and delivering projects at work when agreed upon and promised.

I= Intimacy.

This one means, I connect as a human being and not a carbon life form or walking business job description, with clear boundaries. The implication is that it’s OK for me to know about you as a person — your hopes, fears, feelings, vulnerabilities.

It’s vital to emphasize the word “boundary” here. We need to manage boundaries with different stakeholders, based on rules and societal norms, as well as our objectives. For example, it would not be appropriate (or wise) to share with a group of investors that I am completely stressed, feel I am the wrong person to lead the venture, and feel incredibly insecure. No over-sharing!

Here’s where we are so far, then: credibility, reliability, and intimacy all affect how much we are trusted, and how much we can trust another person. There’s a multiplier effect here, too — as even one gets higher, the trust level grows. If two or more get higher, trust can become extremely high.

But there’s one more factor in this trust equation.

SO= Self-Orientation.

This is the element that decreases trust (that’s why you have to divide all the positives by this one negative).

Self-Orientation means: do I care about you or this relationship all about my own self interest?

We have all experienced this at some point with sales people, who appear willing to say anything in order to sell something. But think of the power of a salesperson who actually says something that’s not about getting you to buy something from them?

Once, I asked a salesperson for their opinion about a sweater I was considering. She told me quite candidly: “I think it looks an 8 out of 10 on you, it is not bad. But do you really need another black sweater?” That resulted in an instant increase on my trust barometer!

how you can build trust

Building trust may require you to start showing some new behaviors. And it may mean you need stop some other ones. Think about  your work, your colleagues, and your teams. What are the actions and attitudes that build trust? And what are the ones that destroy it?

By the way, you can do this same exercise at home – the same principles apply.

behaviors you should show – and encourage in others

Based on the above, it becomes really clear what behaviors you need to show in order to earn trust with others. Be credible – do your homework, know what you’re talking about, and be clear when you don’t have the answer. Be reliable – do what you’re say you’ll do, on time. Every time. Show intimacy – be human, show humor, be self-effacing, demonstrate an appropriate level of vulnerability with others.

The hardest of these three for most people, especially at work, is intimacy. As human beings, we are hard-wired for connection, love and belonging. When we put up armor in the hopes of not showing weakness, it creates a false perception of safety. We may think that by not exposing any vulnerability, we make ourselves safe from being judged. Safe from potentially losing connections, love and belonging. Paradoxically, the stronger our armor, the lower the connections we’re able to form with others. Shows of vulnerability – with the appropriate boundaries – are necessary for genuine trust-based relationships.

For your team dynamic, getting this right is particularly important. A key finding of Google’s Project Aristotle, which explored the central question of what makes a great team, was that a great team at its core has psychological safety. Business writers Peter Lencioni and Brene Brown are also strong advocates of leaders who work to ensure that all team members feel that they can be honest and forthright – that they can be who they really are – without fear of negative consequences from anyone on the team.

behaviors you need to stop – and discourage in others

One of the most insidious factors that decreases trust at work is gossiping. When people gossip to you, you can be sure that they will do the same thing behind your back. Another negative behavior is escalation. If you consistently go above someone’s head when you have a dispute or a complaint, rather than directly confronting the person with whom you have the issue, you’re eroding trust.

don’t forget to mind the time

While it might be great if all of this worked overnight, most people would argue that trust takes time to build. However, I would assert that whether we like it or not, trust can be created and broken in a very short period of time.

beware the snap judgement

We’ve been trained and socialized about what non-verbal cues we should read when we meet people for the first time. As a result, we’re constantly making snap decisions, based on “instinct,” about whether we should trust someone or not. Sometimes we’ll be correct, and that subconscious evaluation will help keep us safe.

But at work in particular, sometimes that gut reaction is incorrect. And it can be extremely damaging. Unconscious bias can lead us all down the wrong path, with serious negative consequences. We all have it. To correct for it, we have to make conscious and well-considered decisions with a clear view of what our unconscious biases are and where they might lead us.

For example, in my story about assessing the trustworthiness of the various people in the airline lounge, I judged people who looked similar to me and whose attire was closest to mine to be the ones I could probably trust the most. Maybe that assumption was right in that situation. But maybe not.

be patient

Authentic earned trust is a function of time. So if you’re trying to earn it, you need to be patient. Don’t be hurt if some people are wary, suspicious or hard to win over. Who knows why they may be that way? If you demonstrate the behaviors we’ve discussed, in time you’ll prevail.

do you trust yourself?

The last important point I want to make is that so far we have been talking about trusting others. A key stakeholder we are often challenged by is OURSELVES.

Do we trust ourselves fully? Are we good enough, smart enough, young enough, old enough, worthy enough, fill the in the blank ____ enough?

This is the realm of some deeper personal development work, to explore how we can get in our own way and stall our progress and impact when we don’t trust in ourselves.

But that’s for another day! In closing, let me ask you this. Who do you think I left my bag and coat with at the airport lounge?

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Malvika Singh is the founding partner of IMPACT, an international consulting and leadership development firm. She works with Boards, CEOs and top leadership teams. Her client list includes American Express, eBay, McKinsey & Company, Novartis, Siemens, Swiss Re, and WPP.

Malvika is a member of Harvard Kennedy School Women’s Leadership Board (WLB), and a board member of Advance, a cross company women’s leadership initiative she co-founded. She holds an undergraduate degree from The University of Pennsylvania, and an M.B.A. in Finance and International Business from New York University. She currently resides in Zurich.

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