The Drivers of Trust

by | Feb 11, 2020 | Insights

What Do We Look For When Deciding To Trust Someone?American politics provides a fascinating and perennial (actually a quadrennial) question: who do you trust?

-Specifically, if you are a voter, which candidate do you trust to advance the priorities that matter to you and, more generally, whose instincts, judgement and experience will you trust when unforeseen issues arise?

In a year when many countries are holding elections – and when businesses worldwide are looking to build levels of trust and connection – it is time to ask: what do we look for when deciding to trust someone?

Mark Twain wrote: “It ain’t what we know that matters, but what we know that just ain’t so.” This perceptive comment foreshadowed a major issue that came to dominate the last century: the importance of knowledge and the value of certainty.

I like to think that if he were around today Twain might add to this: now, it’s not simply what we know that matters, but how we react to what we don’t know. It is human-centred qualities of openness, curiosity and a desire to do the right thing that people value hugely.

This poses a couple of challenges. If knowledge remains valuable then people try to fake it. They peddle “fake news” and “alternative facts”. Fortunately, these can, mostly, be disproved. A fact is a fact, after all. What poses a greater challenge is those increasingly significant human-centred qualities. People claim to have and value them, but people are people: both brilliant and awful, talented and flawed. Sometimes people are genuine and succeed. Sometimes they are genuine and fail. And sometimes (whisper it quietly) they aren’t genuine at all.


In organisations, navigating the complexity of this issue matters. At a time when circumstances change constantly building open, resilient, strong relationships is crucial. Also, trust is an issue that underpins many others – from teamworking and selling to leading people through change, risk-taking and innovating. Clearly, trust is always important and often decisive.

Key Concept: The Trust Equation

In their book “The Trusted Advisor” Maister, Galford and Green provide a framework for understanding trust, using four variables. Proactively managing these is invaluable when building trusted relationships:

  • Credibility – chiefly around the words we speak and the emphasis we give something.
  • Reliability – this has to do with our actions.
  • Intimacy – this refers to the safety or security we have when entrusting someone with something.
  • Self-orientation – the extent to which we are focused on ourselves.

There are several key points. First, increasing the factors driving trust (the numerator) increases the value of trust, while increasing the value of the denominator (self-orientation) decreases it. Crucially, self-orientation is the most significant variable. For example, a salesperson with low self-orientation is free to completely focus on the customer, not for their own sake but for the customer. That quality can be rare and is hugely valuable. Also, by “intimacy” the issue is openness and the ability to genuinely give of oneself, that’s what matters.

Drivers of Trust

Given the significance of trust it is worth asking: what do people look for when choosing to trust someone? What can we do to build trust? At least part of the answer lies in research we conducted examining the drivers of trust (see “A Question of Trust” by Sally Bibb and Jeremy Kourdi, published by Marshall Cavendish). It is worth taking the time to consider each attribute: what you do well, and what you could improve? Trust me, it will help.

The attributes people look for when deciding whether to trust someone at work:

  • Courage
  • Unselfishness
  • Fairness
  • Openness
  • Compassion
  • Respect
  • Dependability
  • Empathy
  • Visionary
  • Supportiveness

This implies an ability to do and say what you mean, especially when faced with adversity. It also requires a capacity to take risks, to be constant and determined, to admit mistakes and to stand alone. In the words of former Air France CEO Jean-Cyril Spinetta: “Try to be transparent, clear and truthful. Even when it is difficult, and above all when it is difficult.”

Behave unselfishly

One of the biggest counters to trust is a feeling that people are motivated by narrow self-interest, that life (and particularly commerce) is a zero sum game. Instead, prove them wrong. Not naively, but because it is the right thing to do and in the end we all benefit.

Value fairness

This means treating others according to what is reasonable, as you would wish to be treated, and in a consistent, even-handed manner. Being fair does not simply mean preventing unfairness; it implies a proactive desire to seek out what is just, and then follow that course.

Be open

Are you approachable? Do people feel inclined to come and talk to you? Openness matters because people that appear closed or distant are not accessible or open, so trust cannot take root.

Develop empathy, compassion and supportiveness

The reason people who display these qualities are trusted is because they give others a genuine feeling that their feelings and circumstances are being considered and understood, there is positive intent, and this leads to support.

Give respect and credit to others

Respect is a clear, positive and engaging virtue. Respect involves sharing values and providing a common language that brings people together. Trust occurs because people feel that these individuals and firms are on their ‘wavelength’. This concept of congruency is a central pillar of trust.

Be dependable

Dependability has much in common with the other attributes and, like them, it can mean giving up things – information, time, resources – to help others succeed. To illustrate the impact of dependability, consider the most trustworthy people you have ever met: how dependable are they?

It is sometimes said that trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback. Valuing these attributes constantly will help strengthen the trust that people have in you.

So, what matters most to you when deciding to trust someone?

(For further information, Nate Silver’s website provides great insight and analysis, while Nieman Lab provides an interesting perspective on fake news.)

Kourdi Associates​ ​work with current and potential leaders to develop their mindset, skills and effectiveness. Jeremy Kourdi is formerly Senior Vice President with The Economist, he has worked with London Business School and Duke Corporate Education as well as market-leading businesses worldwide, and he is the author of 27 books translated into 17 languages, including​ ​The Truth About Talent​ ​and​ ​Coaching Essentials​. ​His business​ ​Kourdi Associates​ ​provides coaches, expert content and consultants that help leaders successfully navigate a changing world.

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