It’s a question of trust: The Trust Equation

It’s a question of trust: The Trust Equation

by Kriss Akabusi

Think of a person, a company, or even a celebrity – someone or something you have a relationship with.  Do you trust them?  What makes you put your trust in them (or not, as the case may be)?  What even is trust?

Think back over 2016, and some of the major politcal events of the year. Think of Trump, Putin, Corbyn, May. Do you trust them? If not, why? If yes, why?

In this post, I’ll walk you through the Trust Equation.  It’s a fascinating model developed by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford in their book, The Trusted Adviser.  But you don’t have to have read their work to apply the Trust Equation. In fact, it’s something you already use, every day – without even realising it.



The Trust Equation determines how people relate to each other, and what makes them develop – or lose – trust in others.  Before we get to how it works, though, we need a better understanding of trust, and why it’s so important in every sphere from families to businesses.

What is trust?

When I ask this question to people in my workshops, I get responses like, “Belief”.  “Confidence.”  “Understanding.”  

When we say to someone, “I trust you”, we could instead be saying, “I believe you.”  “I support you.”  “I see wonderful things in you.”  “I feel safe with you.”  “I can be vulnerable with you.”  Whatever it may be, it’s really important to understand what your concept of trust is.

Why is trust so important?

In any group situation – a family, friendship, business, or team – you need to trust each other to achieve.  This group of people working together, collaborating around a common purpose, a unifying principle, and an organising dream, can only work at its best when trust thrives among them.

When thinking about this kind of situation, I always think about the team I was most involved with – the 4x400m relay team.  Recently, I was asked the question, “Why did Roger trust you to run the last leg?  Why did Roger, who should have run the last leg and, had he been successful, would have got all the glory, say, “No, I’m going to run the first leg”?”

Roger knew that leg would be safe in my hands, and there was no other way of us winning the race and achieving our dream.  But how he knew that is typified by the Trust Equation.

What is the Trust Equation?

As you can see, this equation takes three qualities about a person – credibility, reliability, and intimacy – and divides that by self-orientation, in all determining how trustworthy they may appear to another.

As we go through each aspect, think of that person or company you thought of at the beginning, and assess how they perform at each stage.  Determine exactly how they imbue your trust, or not, as the case may be!

You can even consider your own trustworthiness – particularly if you work in a position where people need to trust you.  As a manager, you may think (or simply hope!) your employees trust you, but what’s important is what they say behind your back.  If you’re hitting all your targets but your 360-reviews always come back miserably, maybe you’re not earning your team’s trust.

C stands for Credibility

The first aspect of trustworthiness is a person’s credibility – and there are two strands that combine in this.

Firstly, is the person qualified to hold that position?  This could mean that they have academic qualifications proving their expertise in an area, or they’ve proved themselves in it already.  So for example, Roger and the boys knew that, through my history, I had run the last leg at different levels and more importantly brought the baton home in first place.  So I was qualified – I’d proved myself.

The second strand is experience.

It’s all very well having qualifications on paper, but does the person also have years of experience to draw from?  An MD may be deemed ‘credible’ by her team if her CV lists not only her qualifications from business school, but also her tenures as team leader, CFO, partner in the firm, prior to becoming Managing Director.  

It’s also important to be mindful that, when looking at experience, we don’t just mean success.  People don’t trust people they can’t empathise with, so it’s important they see your experience of bad times and how you have negotiated those. So this CEO who has successfully navigated a myriad of businesses through recessions, hostile take-overs and a profit warning in a fist full of tenures is going to have a high trust index. She’s got years of experience – and we know she’s qualified.  That gives you credibility.

R stands for Reliability

Credibility isn’t enough.  If you’re not reliable, you can’t be trusted.  Just think of the rail companies – we know the drivers are qualified to get us there safely, but can we plan every journey knowing we’ll get there on time? Experience would say, ‘no way’! I will never forget having to abandon my 45-minute train ride from Bedfordshire into London Euston due to some unforeseen circumstance, having to hotfoot it to Watford to get a taxi, and turning up to my conference hot and bothered, £140 lighter, and with just minutes to spare, thinking “Never again!”

Speaking of which, reliability is really important for the public perception of businesses.  Just take the Volkswagen emissions scandal; our ability to rely on VW was blown out of the water, as was their credibility. Its only now being restored as we realise the issue is not a manufacture issue but an industry issue, and that legislation and regulations have placed unrealistic numbers on emissions.  The motor industry cannot adhere to these and provide the vehicle performance the public demands at the same time.  Another nail in the coffin, then, for the trust quotient for public office!

If you want to be trusted, and you have credibility, you need to do everything to prove yourself reliable – or your team will always find it difficult to trust you.

I stands for Intimacy

Intimacy relates to how close you are to others in your team, how well you speak their language.  A sign that intimacy is strong in a team is when criticisms can be made of each other without bruising egos.  When you’re tight as can be, you can call each other out as you all understand it’s for the good of all of you.

Consider a military unit, where teamwork and trust could be the difference between life and death.  If one member isn’t pulling their weight, the others will pull them up on it.  The conversation could be quite brutal, but people won’t get upset.  Their intimacy is strong, they speak the same language, and they know it’s for the good of everyone involved.

This kind of intimacy is a power relationship, where you can have those brutal conversations and hold each other’s feet to the fire. The other kind of intimacy is love.

This isn’t necessarily romantic or familial love, but it’s being able to go on a journey with somebody, to see that they’re off-colour, to potentially take in some really tough stuff.  When you’re in a trusted relationship, you can share that stuff, take a person’s story and walk with them through it.

So perhaps you notice one of your colleagues isn’t their usual self, and it’s mitigating their performance.  In a trusted relationship, you can ask them what’s up, and they won’t mind telling you that a family member has just died and they’re finding it tough.  They won’t mind because they trust you to take it in, to understand, and to help.

As a coach, you need a balance of both power and love.  You need to know when to hold the bar up high and when to slacken off a bit.  These are not rigid lines, they’re flowing systems that go in and out.

Think of Samsung for a moment.  Right now, their credibility and reliability are low.  But their intimacy has been good – informing customers of defects, recalling items, keeping the public updated.  They’re speaking the language of their customers, and it’s helping maintain an element of trust that has otherwise been heavily damaged.

SO is for Self-orientation

No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.  And the Trust Equation highlights the importance of that care for your team.  Your credibility, reliability and intimacy may be great – but if you’re self-oriented, there’s no way you can guarantee trust from others.

You may have the appearance of intimacy, of credibility and of reliability, but if the team think it’s all for your own benefit, they won’t trust you.  You have to care about the good of the team, you have to show them this isn’t just about you and your bonus, that a positive outcome is one that benefits all of you.

Think of David Cameron and George Osborne.  Austerity may have been labelled as a plan to help the country, but trust was at stake the moment suspicions arose the policy was for the benefit of their friends at the top.  Similarly, the promise of the EU referendum was a SI tool to unite the Conservative party. Had they known the outcome, they would have understood the agitation surrounding austerity and the antipathy towards this ‘self-interested’ government.  They made the mistake of acting in the party’s interest, not the national interest – and now both are in a very different position!

(C + R + I)  ⁄  SO = T

So there you have it.  Whether overtly or covertly, we constantly use the Trust Equation to determine the trustworthiness of others.  Do you now understand a little more about that person or brand you were thinking about?  Does your trust/ lack of trust in Trump, Putin, Corbyn, and May make more sense? Or more importantly, do you understand more about yourself?  Tell me in the comments below!

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