Why building up Trust requires focusing on Others

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

A helping hand from a friend can make a huge difference in someones life.
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Trust is the foundation of any interaction with human beings. If others do not trust you, you will have a hard time convincing them to collaborate with you on anything. How can you increase your trustworthiness and how can others you interact with trust in you? These are good questions to ask, as trust is also the foundation in the business world upon which the success of every organization is built. In this article I’ll explain why building up trust requires you to focus on others, and not yourself. This requires a shift in your thinking, as most actions of self-improvement usually focus on yourself. Here the focus is on others, and I’ll illustrate this by first introducing a conceptual model of trust below.

There are many articles that describe why trust is important, and how you can build up trust. I was looking for a simple answer to determine how I can trust a leader, but couldn’t find an easy answer. Most of the time the criteria that describes attributes of a trusted leader are very broad, e.g., a trusted person always tells the truth and has integrity. While this seems valid, I think the primary criteria for me whether I can trust a person is whether I feel “safe” - safe to make mistakes, safe to speak the truth even if it is not pleasant and safe to be the person I am, not pretending to being someone else.

A Conceptual Model of Trust and a “Trust Score”

As I’m a scientist, I usually like to first build up a model that allows me to better conceptualize a problem. Assume for a moment that the trust between person A and person B could be measured like a currency, and there is at any moment a “trust balance” or “trust score” between two persons in both directions. More precisely, if you are person A, there is a feeling (a “balance”) in your subconscious mind on how you think you can trust person B. We could make this even more complicated by assigning special dimensions for trust, e.g., how much do I trust this person to keep a secret, how much can I trust this person to be on time, and so on. For simplicity we use the concept of general trust, which is overarching and is including all possible dimensions of trust.

Initially when you meet a person for the first time, then we assume your trust score for this person is at 0 (neutral). However, this may not be true in many cases. For example, you may have heard from your friends some information about person B, this could already bias your trust balance and increase or decrease it. Or, you read something on social media or on the Web about person B. Based on that you internally already make adjustments to the initial trust balance. While this is happening mostly in your subconscious mind, it therefore requires a certain level of presence to be aware of any biases when you meet a person for the first time.

After meeting a new person, the amount of trust you place in them is a direct result of their actions and how safe they make you feel. But note that ongoing interaction is not even needed. Random thoughts as well as any information you obtain about a person can affect their trustworthiness. As an example, you meet person B, you like her and the trust balance is at +10. Then you don’t meet the person for a few months. In the meantime you read a few Facebook posts of person B, heard a few news from friends that person B did some “terrible” things (e.g., talked with a person you don’t like). Your own imagination and information from third parties can have just as massive of an impact as actual interaction with the person.

Please note these numbers are only theoretical figures, as I don’t think we can mathematically assign real scores (yet). It’s just helpful to think in numbers, as we all grew up with them and understand the concept of addition or subtraction well.

How Trustworthy are you?

With the conceptual model of trust above, you could now theoretically just sum up all the trust scores of people who know you. This in aggregate represents your trust in this world.

Problem is of course that you a) don’t know all the persons who know you and b) even if you would, there is no simple number that they would be able to tell you if you ask “How much do you trust me?” or c) even if they could by the time you have all numbers obtained it would already be stale as this score is changing all the time. However, that we cannot compute it today, doesn’t mean it is completely impossible to calculate it in the future. Companies like Facebook, Google, or Twitter are already now trying to calculate approximations of such a trust score, by mining your social media data (e.g., counting likes on Facebook, where you commented, how much you shared some content) and applying algorithms to come up with some form of a trust score. But it goes further, in China the government tries to combine social media activity with other form of ratings to assign its 1.3 billion people a “trust score”.

For the purpose of this article it is not important what the absolute value of your score is, as it is not feasible to calculate it and you can’t control that score anyhow, as you cannot control other people’s thinking. For us of interest therefore is the relative change of this score over time. In particular, certain actions and behavior that can build up the score or decrease it.

Implications of the Trust Score