top of page

High Performers Have This. Also-Rans Don’t.

Watch Collaboration and Productivity Grow With This Simple Trustworthiness Equation


It’s pretty well known that working with other humans often vexes us even more than the trickiest business challenges. But until robots replace us, we homo sapiens must rely on each other to get things done. After all, no one person can run a small business – never mind a massive enterprise – 100% solo. So mastering the art of cooperation is vital to our success.

During my years as a senior executive at companies like Microsoft and Novartis, and in my executive coaching practice, I’ve observed many foundational attributes of both teams and individuals.

There’s one single attribute that consistently separates the high-performers from the also-rans.

That attribute? Trust.

The Problem With Trust

Here's the thing about trust. People define it in very different ways, and that matters.

I'm sure you've heard colleagues say, "I just don't trust him," or "Watch out. You can't trust her." But what exactly do they mean when they say those things?

The fact is that different people define trust in different ways. One person might mean, ”I don't trust that he knows what he's talking about.” Another might mean, "I don't trust her motives.” And the difference between distrusting another's expertise versus distrusting their morals has huge implications.

Understanding the nuanced meanings of trust and getting proficient at communicating them can eliminate a lot of grief. More importantly, it can turbo-charge your ability to sort out the most challenging business issues and work with others to devise fantastic solutions.

When people clam up, opportunities are lost.

If people don't trust each other, they're afraid to get vulnerable. (Who wants to risk exposing their soft underbelly?) Feeling unsafe, they hold back or throw up defenses. The group consequently misses out on some of their contributions. Many of these contributions could provide important insight and wisdom but never see the light of day.

Put another way, distrust avoids the hard conversations needed to solve complex problems.

Conversely, just as many hands make light work, applying many brains to a problem is more likely to develop a greater variety of solutions – and it only takes one genius idea to make all the difference.

What’s Your Trustworthiness Score?

In the business classic The Trusted Advisor, Charles Green and his co-authors present what they call “the trust equation.” It's a nifty way of capturing the nuances of trustworthiness quantitatively.

Yes, quantitatively. You're going to love this.

The trust equation has three elements in the numerator and one in the denominator:

Trustworthiness = Credible + Reliable + Empathetic / Self-Serving

To use this model, you need to accurately define each trait. Through trial and error, I've discovered the following definitions resonate best with my clients. They’re slightly different from those provided in the book.

Credible - The person knows what they're talking about; they know their stuff.

Reliable - They do what they say they'll do; they follow through on promises.

Empathetic - They’re willing to connect with others on a human level.

Self-serving - They care more about their agenda than they care about others.

Using a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “never true” and 5 meaning “always true,” score each trait of a particular person.

Then add up your numerators and divide that total by the denominator. A perfect score is 15 (a 5 for each numerator trait and a 1 for the denominator trait.) The lowest score possible is 0.60, or 3/5.

To learn more about the insights this model can give you, think of someone you know well and score them. How does the resulting score compare with the gut-level trust you feel for that person? My guess is the correlation is relatively high.

Now, for grins, score yourself as you imagine that person might rate you.

Self-Service: Good for cafeterias, bad for leaders

Whether you're scoring yourself or someone else, notice how powerful the trust equation's denominator is. Green and his co-authors deliberately built the equation to emphasize how strongly a self-serving demeanor affects our perceptions of someone's trustworthiness. The more self-serving someone is, the less we trust they have our best interests at heart, and the less likely we are to put our trust in them.

More than an esoteric gee-whiz calculator, the trust equation has real-world application. Whenever you're in a situation where you're feeling reluctant to extend trust, you can whip out the model, score the other person, and better understand why you're feeling the way you do.

This approach can prepare you for a focused conversation to help someone take specific steps to increase their trustworthiness in others' eyes.

Ever feel like your team is holding back?

By the same token, if you've received feedback that others don't trust you, you can sit down with the distrusting parties, share the trust equation with them, and ask them to score you. Then you can take action to improve the behaviors that have eroded their trust in you.

Using this approach takes courage, but it pays sweet dividends. It begins moving your trust meter's needle in the right direction because people sense your ownership of your behavior and your openness to their advice. Both of those traits will favorably impact your Self-Serving score, the most potent lever in the equation.

5 Steps To Improving Your Trustworthiness

Here are five simple steps for putting the trust equation to work. I recommend using it on yourself before you give it a whirl with others:

  1. Invite someone who knows you well to score your trustworthiness; explain that you want to get better at earning trust.

  2. Walk them through the definitions and the equation, so they know how the math works.

  3. After they've scored you, ask for their color commentary, practicing active listening, thank them for the feedback, and commit to applying it.

  4. Identify one to three changes you want to make to your behavior to increase trustworthiness.

  5. Rinse and repeat.

After you get rated and receive feedback a few times, you'll get a good sense of the experience, and then you'll be better prepared to give trustworthiness feedback thoughtfully.

Robots may rule the world one day. But until then, we humans would do well to hone our collaboration skills. And since effective collaboration depends on our trusting one another, we'd better get very skilled at earning and extending trust.

Trust is crucial in our personal lives and in our work lives. It’s particularly important if we’re looking to gain or maintain a leadership position. When we can trust and be trusted, we not only become more productive, but we also find more joy along the way. That’s something robots can only dream of.


bottom of page