December 26, 2010 § 11 Comments

In a 2009 report: “Turbocharging Employee Engagement,” Towers Watson reported on research that found “58% of workers trust their immediate supervisor.”  This means that 42% of people in the workforce are mistrustful of their boss.


It stinks to work in an environment where you mistrust your boss, but what’s the business cost of this?  Has it been quantified?  It has, and it’s quite significant.  According to Tony Simons’  2002 Harvard Business Review article:  “The High Cost of Lost Trust,”  6,500 employees in the U.S. and Canadian hotel industry were surveyed and asked  questions about their managers’ behaviors including questions on the integrity and sincerity of their boss. The findings: Hotels where employees tended to trust their managers “…were substantial more profitable…”  In fact, a 4% increase in the trust of management  “….could be expected to increase the hotel’s profitability by 2.5% of revenues..(which)… translates to a profit increase of more than $250,000 per year per hotel. No other single aspect of manager behavior that we measured had as large an impact on profits.

Trust.  What exactly is it and how do we get to be seen as trustworthy?

Is it simply credibility and dependability based on knowledge and expertise?  I know a mechanic I would trust to fix my car, but I’m not sure I would trust him alone in my house.    Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, was once asked to define trust.  His response:  “I know it when I see it,” (almost identical to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s response to how he would define pornography).  Charles Feltman (The Thin Book of Trust. Oregon, Thin Book Publishing Co., 2009) defines it as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”  As managers, we need and we want to be seen as trustworthy.

Feltman did research on this perception of trustworthiness.  He asked people to rate themselves, and others on a  1-10 scale (10= “can be trusted in all situations,”  1=  “can rarely or never be trusted”).  He found that people “….tend to judge others to be less trustworthy than [themselves].”  This means you can likely predict that there are people you work with who experience you as less trustworthy than you experience yourself.


What are the factors that make us trustworthy?

Maister, Green and Galford studied the elements of trust (The Trusted Advisor. New York, The Free Press, 2000) and have put trustworthiness into an equation, with four independent variables.  I have used these behavioral foci to help my coaching clients increase their trustworthiness.                                        

Trustworthiness      =      (C + R + I) /  S

C = Credibility.          Can people trust and believe your competence, trust what you know and say about subjects?  Does your logic hold together? Do you say ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t,  or do you spin?  Credibility is about truthfulness, knowledge, credentials.

R = Reliability            Can people trust you to act?  Do you deliver what you promise? Are you consistent, dependable and predictable (your project docs have a consistent look and feel; you are rigorous with business practices and following up on issues)?  Are you sincere (say what you mean, mean what you say) and do your actions back up your words? As my friend Chuck Phillips used to say, “does your video match your audio?

I = Intimacy                Do people feel safe around you?  Can they trust that you won’t embarrass them?   Do they experience you as discreet and empathic? Would they say you listen to them,  accept their point of view, appreciate them when they deserve it,  share your own vulnerabilities with them?

S = Self-Orientation    Would they say you keep THEIR interests in mind when you make decisions and take actions?  When problems occur, do they see you owning up to your role in them, versus blaming others?  Do you apologize when you need to? Would they say that you act in ways that really has their best interests, their careers at heart (especially when there’s no direct benefit to you)?

Take-Away: In a study of over 12,000 individuals (Maister,, the findings showed that the people who strongly lead with Credibility and Reliability had among the lowest overall trustworthiness scores!  High Credibility and Reliability are the rational components of trust and are incorrectly assumed as good enough to label someone (or yourself) as trustworthy.  High Intimacy & Low Self-Orientation are the emotional/psychological components of trust, and are the most critical. Without these in place, people will limit their trust of you to specific situations (ie: just to your area of expertise, like me and the car mechanic), but not to YOU as their manager. And as their manager, you will not succeed at creating a climate of safety, engagement and creativity. And you will not be experienced as trustworthy as you would like to be.

So, what’s the single most leveraged behavior you can practice to increase your trustworthiness?  LISTEN MORE.  Listening triggers the human process of reciprocity,  and you will build intimacy and trust.  Never underestimate how much people just want to feel that they have been heard.

Consider what New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman says on the matter:

People often ask me how I, an American Jew, have been able to operate in the Arab/Muslim world for 20 years, and my answer to them is always the same. The secret is to be a good listener.  It has never failed me….Indeed, the most important part of listening is that it is a sign of respect. It is not just what you hear by listening that is important.  It is what you say by listening that is important…”


§ 11 Responses to Trustworthiness

  • John Halper says:

    My comment is along the lines of understanding the formula you presented for trustworthiness. Mathematically speaking, it appears to give equal weight to each of the parameters…is that the intent? I realize that there probably is no hard and fast coefficient for each parameter, but would there be some relative weighting?

    I found the blog very interesting and I will re-read it to absorb more.

    Coincidentally, a couple of days ago my sister-in-law and I were discussing what I considered to be the single most important character trait of this nature: being a good listener.

  • I’m not 100% sure about validation on weighting of variables, but will check it out. What’s important is to understand that if you aren’t up to snuff on all the variables, then your trustworthiness gets limited to certain areas.

  • I did a little more digging. In their book The Trusted Advisor, the authors state that the equation is a framework, not scientific conclusion. That being said, they do write about the consequences of getting poor marks on each of the trust variables: Low Credibility = “windbags,” Low Reliability = “irresponsible,” Low Intimacy = “technicians,” High Self-Orientation = “devious.” Bottom line for me – and for my clients – is what kind of reputation do you have? What kind do you want?

  • Hollander Eric says:

    Nice and usefull blog, Allen. It is a pity you’re so far: I should work on the las Item, self-orientation. To be honnest, Air is weak on this point. And I am the boss of Air, after all;-) The funny thing -or not funny at all- is: in my personnal life, friends consider me as the kind of good listener you’re talking about. In our managment team I’m the one able to spend hours to listen people. But there is a gap between “listen” and “act”. And that’s certainly not good for trust….

  • Hi Eric, great to hear from you. Yes, acting is key for reliability. I often get comments from clients who say listening is good, but….. I’m not sure if it has to be either/or This is especially true in the doctors office where research says patience will comply with doctors orders the more they believe the doctor listens to them (vs. the 20 seconds the patient is allowed to talk). By the way . . .do you really spend hours listening to someone? Maybe THEY need to learn how to get to the point more quickly? Maybe you could coach them on this?

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by hollanderleader, hollanderleader. hollanderleader said: Are you trustworthy? […]

  • Julie Lang says:

    Pithy, captivating, funny. More Allen, please!

  • Gretchen Cherington says:

    I liked this equation, because “intimacy” is so often left out of the equation in a business setting, and yet your description of intimacy here is spot on, especially re sharing vulnerabilities and discretion. This is a great add to the Lencioni model where trust is at the foundation – helps describe trust well and unpacks it for easier understanding.
    Have you ever used it in synch with Lencioni?

  • […] do not trust their manager.   If you want to assess yourself on this, see my previous post on TRUSTWORTHINESS to understand what it takes to earn or gain […]

  • Momma E. says:

    I found th is quite interesting from a life perspective as well as a work/leadership one. Thanks for writing, great post!

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