Chronicling key variables in the trustworthiness equation

We all know that trust is the cornerstone to any healthy relationship, personally and professionally. But when it comes to building trust, it becomes a little less cut and dry.

What are the real ingredients? A simple Google query of trust building reveals pages of information. Often, however, the advice is filled with generalities and platitudes that lack any practical weight. Open communication, honesty and empathy are great, but what do they really mean? And, more importantly, how do you practise them?

Charles Green, CEO of Trusted Advisors, has been studying trust and how to build it in organizations since 1997. He has found that trust is made up of two components: being trusting and being trustworthy, which are often conflated. 

To trust, by its very nature, means to a take risk and believe in something, be it God, a political party, that your dry cleaning will be returned or your child will mow the lawn. 

Trustworthiness, however, is the opposite of risky. To be trustworthy necessarily implies notions of protection, safety and well-being. And it is trustworthiness that cements the trust in professional and personal relationships.

Trustworthiness, Green has found, has four components:

1) Credibility: the words we say, the skills and credentials we bring and the way in which people experience our expertise make people trust us.

2) Reliability: the actions we take, our predictability and the ways in which people find us dependable make people trust us.

3) Intimacy: the extent to which people feel they can confide in us and perceive us as discreet, empathetic and safe all make people trust us.

4) (Low) self-orientation: the more people feel we are focused on them, rather than on ourselves, the more they trust us.

After conducting more than 86,000 surveys and interviews of people across all levels of organizations spanning three decades and 128 countries, Green’s Trusted Advisors came up with some fascinating results about trust. Forty-one per cent of respondents say they are reliable. By contrast, intimacy and or (low) self-orientation are the least often reported strengths; only 18% of respondents say they lead with intimacy and only 18% with favourable self-orientation.

Interestingly, when it comes to what people rank as being the most important in developing trust, intimacy and (low) self-orientation are the most important – the traits that survey respondents claimed to have the least of.

Want to improve your trustworthiness? Here are some tips with a bit more gravitas than a Google search.

•Tell your clients and your team members something you appreciate about them. The research says at least once a week. For example, “Jamal, yesterday at the client meeting you really were on point. Thanks for that, and for all the energy you’ve been bringing to the company lately.”

•Be willing to express your own feelings. The science tells us that the better we are at naming our own emotions and communicating those to others, the better they respond (when delivered with tact, of course). “Mike, I gotta admit that what you just said makes me frustrated because …” or, conversely, “Mike, you have no idea how happy I am to hear that.”

•Get personal. The next time someone asks you how your weekend was, tell him or her. “My weekend was terrific, Sarah, thanks for asking. My parents came over from the Island to visit and to babysit, which means my husband and I got a much needed rest.”

•Call out the elephants in the room, when they are there. Phrases like, “This is awkward ...” or “I wish I had different news ...” or “This is not how we expected it to turn out …” demonstrate not only emotional awareness, but humility.

While trying some of these tips might initially feel uncomfortable, the good news is that credibility is the only one of the four elements in Green’s trust equation that requires a significant investment of time to see results. The other three, his studies show, can be implemented immediately and generate quick results. 

Casey Miller (, president of Six and a Half Consulting, is a leadership and team development specialist. His consultancy teaches organizations the skills needed to create motivated and inspired workplaces.