The Trust Equation

The Trust Equation

The Trust Equation = (Credibility + Reliability + Authenticity) / Perception of Self Interest

e.g. Has the knowledge and skills to perform their current role, at this specific time, in this specific context.

e.g. Keeps promises. Delivers work to the agreed standard. Completes work by the agreed date.

e.g. Genuine. Truthful. Says what they really think. Describes how they truly feel.

e.g. Selfish. Takes the credit. Puts themselves ahead of the team. Puts their department ahead of the wider organization.

Assign a number on a scale from 1 to 10 for each variable. e.g. (5+7+8)/4 = 5

Essentially, the amount you trust someone is the sum of how credible you believe they are in the role they are performing right now, plus how reliable they’ve proven themselves to be over time, plus how authentic you think they are as a person, divided by how much you think they’re acting in their own self-interest.

Use This Equation to Determine, Diagnose, and Repair Trust

Trust is at the root of all relationships. It defines whether you’ll like someone or be able to do productive work with them.

This article in First Round Review written by Anne Raimondi gave me an interesting framework to think about the concept of trust. Key excerpts in italics:


You’ll find someone credible if they seem to have the knowledge, experience, and familiarity to perform a particular role well.

Credibility is something people have in a particular role, in a particular setting, at a particular time.

Where credibility breaks down:

When people move into new roles within an organization or inherit teams of people to manage.

Whenever anyone is doing something they’ve never done before or figuring out something unprecedented.

When someone who was just a great engineer, designer, marketer, etc. is suddenly promoted to manage people, which requires talent at leadership and handling people issues.

(See my article: The Real Difference Between Leadership and Management)

How to build credibility:

If you truly are new at doing something, be patient. In the meantime, lean hard on your reliability and authenticity. Keep your commitments, hit deadlines, and don’t hide what you don’t know how to do, or fake confidence.

Also, make it visible what you’re doing to gain credibility, whether that’s reading on the subject matter, getting a coach, or applying feedback you’ve gotten. 

If you’ve been put in charge of a team because leadership wanted to go in a new direction, be really transparent about that and how the change was made. Don’t let people make up their own stories. Get ahead of it with something like: “I was brought in so we could hit X milestone with a different approach, and I have X expertise they thought would be helpful.”

Conversely, if lack of credibility is the reason you’re doubting someone, gently broach the subject in a one-on-one: “How are you making decisions? What experience are you applying in this situation? How are you learning in this area?” And don’t forget to ask, “How can I help you?”


You’ll find someone reliable if they do what they say they’re going to do.

They hold themselves accountable for things when they go well and when they go wrong. They learn from and clean up their mistakes. They’re consistent in behavior, responsiveness, and quality of work.

Someone can be extremely smart, knowledgeable, and a joy to be around, but if they don’t deliver on time or to the standard expected, they’ll lose trust quickly.

Where reliability breaks down:

Missed deadlines have a resounding impact on whether a (small company) succeeds or not. At large companies, reliability is often buffered. More people are around to catch you when you fall, deadlines and goal posts can be moved. This is not the case on small teams.

How to build reliability:

When reliability breaks down, it’s important to address it immediately. Don’t let more than two (missed deadlines) go by without a conversation. In this talk, you want to 1) establish that your expectations were aligned at the start, 2) explain the impact on the team/goal (not just on you), and 3) ideate with them about how to do things differently the next time.

(See my articles: How to Hold People Accountable and No excuses culture

In the course of these conversations, you might discover there was a bigger blocker or systemic issue that led to the deadline being missed – maybe it’s not the other person’s fault after all, and you just unearthed something more important to fix.

It’s crucial to get the best read possible on the reliability of every single candidate you interview for a job. 

(See my article: How to Hire A-Players)

Ask behavioral-based questions about past experiences to understand how someone acts, not how they think they would act. For example, “Tell me about a time when you missed a deadline. How did you handle the situation?”

Give candidates a homework assignment with multiple deliverables (e.g. a written analysis of a recommendation and then a short in-person presentation). If someone is serious about the role and showing their best, you’ll see it in what they deliver.

Once someone’s in the door, reinforce reliability as a cultural value. Make this the norm every day for their first week. Ask them to turn something in or put something out by a certain time. Observe their bias toward action and how promptly they hit their mark.

When you’re new in a role, always look for opportunities to turn work around fast and well to establish your reliability.


Authentic people don’t need to always be polished, or know the answer, or be perfect. They do and say what they mean.

Where authenticity breaks down:

People don’t want to admit they failed or made a mistake because it will damage their credibility.

People try to project confidence even though they’re inexperienced, which can sow distrust

Company culture doesn’t allow for authentic expressions of anger, displeasure, or sadness – which pushes it underground where it can be more corrosive.

How to build authenticity:

Really think about how easy it is for your colleagues to get to know you. This doesn’t mean giving them access to your entire personal life or mean you have to tell them everything about you. Rather, do you respond in ways that align with how you truly think and feel?

Do you share enough about what matters to you and what motivates you with your colleagues? If not, why? There might be room to be more authentic on the job so that people aren’t left guessing or assuming how you feel, what you think, what you’ll do.

Perhaps the best way to be authentic is to stay in consistent, responsive communication. Don’t wait to share bad news or ask for help. Don’t surprise people with decisions or problems out of the blue. This will not only make them think less of you in the moment – they also won’t trust you as much going forward, because who knows what you might be hiding or what’s really going on.

Providing time and space for social gatherings at work is crucial. When people feel like they truly know each other, they trust each other more. Hosting team lunches, celebrating baby showers, and letting people share what they value in their personal lives makes a distinct difference.

Authenticity is particularly relevant when it comes to customer service. The way you choose to communicate with customers can either establish long-lasting trust or lose it forever – largely based on whether they feel a real connection to you.

Keep this in mind as you devise customer service templates. Don’t just be reactive — anticipate issues. Make messages sound human. Have them come from named people. Be transparent when things go wrong. Give people a chance to get to know you better.

Perception of Self Interest.

Does someone seem to be acting only for themselves?

Even if you’re not acting selfishly, it might still appear that you are to others, so you need to be intentional about what you project.

The greater the perception of self-interest, the lower the trust between people. Alternatively, the more someone appears to be doing work for the benefit of the team, the customer, or a higher goal, the easier it is to trust them.

Where self-interest can be a problem:

The bigger your team gets, the more often people have their own agendas, the more they’re posturing for visibility, promotions, and important projects. Executives jockey for position, and politics emerge.

Companies are often running so fast, that they forget the importance of passing credit around and acknowledging everyone’s wins along the way.

How to diffuse self-interest:

Be proactive about generously giving credit to others (in a genuine way), using collective language like ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our’ to make it clear you’re thinking of the team.

Go above and beyond to highlight others, spread credit around, and give away the spotlight.

Salespeople can do a number of things to change people’s perception, including sending out emails when deals are won naming everyone who helped make it possible.

(When interviewing job candidates) do they take opportunities to talk about how they were a member of a bigger team, or do they take individual credit for the work of many?

As companies get larger, tribalism takes seed, and functional areas can start to distrust each other, i.e. “Marketing won’t let us do that” or “We have to do all this work for the folks in Legal.” Nip this in the bud by solidifying trust between heads of departments that work together — they’ll model behavior others will follow. If a rift emerges, use the equation to help them resolve it.

Whenever trust starts to fade because of self-interest, immediately run the exercise of identifying common goals. What’s important to you that’s also important to that other person? What are you both working toward? Get things back on track by connecting everyday work and decision-making to those things.

How to Diagnose Lack of Trust.

  • Disengagement in meetings and general lack of enthusiasm.
  • Silence despite disagreement.
  • Closed-door conversations that turn into vent sessions about another person.
  • People playing politics. (i.e. suddenly, they CC your boss on an email exchange, etc.)
  • Slow execution on directions that have been given.
  • A formerly close relationship has started drifting off the rails.
  • Immediately jumping to the worst possible conclusion on why the other person said or did something.

A lot of times people will complain about a colleague in very specific ways – they do X, Y, or Z wrong. Or they’re awful for these reasons. They don’t realize that trust is the bigger issue.

Whenever you find yourself in this situation, it’s helpful to define the problem as a violation of trust. The Trust Equation can help you decide what to do next.

How to Repair Broken Trust.

Instead of jumping to conclusions about what happened or feeling defensive right off the bat, use the Trust Equation as a diagnostic to figure out what’s truly going on and cool down the negative emotions. 

It’s helpful to actually be quantitative. Assign numbers to the variables in the equation. Let’s say you’re rating the person’s credibility, reliability, authenticity, and self-interest on a scale of 1 to 10. See where you net out (and of course keep it to yourself). This can help crystallize your thinking and remove some of the heated emotion. By assigning points, you also have to recognize what someone is doing well, not just what they’re doing poorly, too.

It can also be valuable to run separate equations for each project the person has worked on with you. Maybe they were 100% reliable on one deliverable, but only 60% on a few others. What do those projects have in common? What can you learn about how that person works so you can help them get better?

Imagine working with the person for the next 5-10 years. What time and energy might be wasted? This will ensure you’re going into the talk with the right priorities and perspective. Then identify which variable in the equation you want to focus your talk around to limit its scope

Don’t wait to talk about it. Initiate a conversation today. If you don’t talk to the person you distrust, your feelings will only become more entrenched. 

It’s ideal to speak in person. Don’t send a long, fraught email.

Most importantly, don’t circumvent the person by talking to their boss or colleagues. Any great manager will tell you to try resolving the issue directly first. So be gentle, speak only from your perspective, assume goodwill on their side, and tether your concern to a specific example so it’s not just an abstract feeling.

Here’s an example: “I wanted to chat because I’ve felt our dynamic shift a bit recently. For example, when X happened, it had Y impact on me. Our relationship is very important to me, so I’d love to understand your experience and understand what to do differently in the future because I think we can accomplish amazing things together.”

Another example: “I just wanted to quickly chat about something that’s been on my mind. For the last two projects, I noticed that you’ve taken the credit during All Hands meetings.”

In Summary.

In every career, regardless of how talented, or dedicated, or socially intelligent you are, there will be moments of uncertainty and relationship turmoil. Instead of jumping to conclusions about what happened or feeling defensive right off the bat, consult the Trust Equation. There’s a high likelihood that what you’re feeling is related to weakened or doubted trust in some respect. This framework can give you a place to start talking about or repairing the situation.


Until next time…