Business Practices

Understanding the trust equation

Trust Equation Feature Image

Building Trust

Our ability to trust is one of the most important human behaviours there is. Without out ability to trust society would simply not work as it is what makes our relationships possible. Whether it is a colleague, a boss, a friend, or partner, we all want to trust others and to be trusted. It is the centrepiece of all our interactions and activities. It goes beyond people too, we tend to trust certain organisations more than others. However it can be hard to grasp and articulate exactly what makes us trust something more than something else. This is where the trust equation can help.

What is the Trust equation?

When we are thinking about whether to trust a piece of information, we usually consider how reliable the source of information is and whether the information seems credible. Often this comes down to how well we know the deliverer of information, how it is being delivered, what their track record is, and how well we know the source.

In my opinion this trust is best articulated by the trust equation:

Trust equation


Let’s break this down:

  • Credibility: This has to do with the words being used and often the background of the person or organisation delivering the information. Take a doctor for example who has years of training and experience. When you are delivered news by a GP you tend to believe what you are being told because of their background.
  • Reliability: This is to do with the deliverers track record. If the organisation or person has track record of delivering you will likely trust that they will deliver in future. For example if you have an employee that always delivers on time you will likely believe them when they say that a timeline is, or is not achievable.
  • Intimacy: This is about your personal relationship with a person or organisation. It is about how secure you feel with them, especially when providing them with personal or confidential information. If you do not feel that confidentiality will be respected by someone, then you will not trust them.
  • Self-orientation: Self orientation is about how much of the topic or information is about you rather than the deliverer. Think of a scenario where you might say “I don’t trust the information John has delivered as they are only thinking about themselves”. If you are saying this the deliverer has not done enough to build trust by making what they are saying about you.

How does this relate to business?

In a business where employees are trusted, teams feel empowered and engage both mentally and emotionally. Where employees trust their employers, companies will have high staff retention rates. Trust is vital for businesses.

Operational importance

As a contractor it is vital that I build trust with my clients quickly and the trust equation helps me achieve this. Without being trusted I cannot operate or provide value and therefore my placement will be short-lived. From the moment my placement starts I look for quick wins and to demonstrate skills to show reliability and credibility. I also engage with other team members and seek their opinions, where possible those opinions are acted upon. This creates the intimacy and makes the focus about them and not myself.

The same operational importance exists if you are new employee or a manager.

What about building trust with clients?

customer meeting trustThere is a huge connection between sellers and buyers. There have been many attempts to create a formula for successful sales. In my opinion building trust is the most important part of any sales cycle. As an employer you should think about how your sales people, products and organisation perform against the trust equation concepts. If your buyer feels that you credible, reliable, if they have a personal connection and the conversation is about them, they will buy from you.

It’s all about people

The trust equation is extremely relevant for businesses but it is important to remember that the meanings are personal and institutional. People do not often trust business institutions, after all they are profit driven and therefore self-orientated. However, people do trust other people.

Companies can often be seen as credible and reliable. However when it comes to intimacy and self-orientation they can struggle. This is where your customer facing staff (the people) play their part in ensuring that the your organisation can score highly in all four areas of the trust equation.


Whether you and your businesses are consciously apply the trust equation or not. There is no doubt that trust will play a massive part in the success in your business and/or your professional career. Becoming aware and thinking about how conversations and decisions will play out on the trust equation will help you to build better relationships and improved successes.

Luckily most of us want to trust and want to be trusted. However always remember – trust is really hard to earn, but is really easy to lose!

David Maister first introduced the Trust equation in his book “The Trusted Advisor” in 2000

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