Trust Issues and how to handle them

I have always liked Seth Godin. He’s one of these people who is quick to understand the fundamental dynamic of a given situation, analyze it, extrapolate from it and then use it as a guideline to understand what needs to be done next. Plus, I like his irreverence and have a soft spot for his way of putting things. 

That Seth too, has started to talk about trust is important. Seth is a weathervane, he tends to point towards where we should all be going long before anyone else in the industry, so when he says trust is important and talks about it on his blog, he too senses just how much we need to understand it now, more than ever. 

What he says in his blog post “The Irrational Thing About Trust” is almost right, too. I say almost because Seth applies solid logic and analysis but here he is very much an outsider looking in and trying to understand. And though his musings (and longer than usual blog post) do a pretty good job at analyzing the situation he’s looking at, he fails to grasp that trust is not a single thing and there is no single way of looking at it. 

This is not a deep personal failing of his. I spent twenty-four months researching The Tribe That Discovered Trust and in that time it became apparent that even scholars who have been studying it for years cannot quite agree on the exact definition of trust, let alone analyze all its manifestations. So looking at Seth’s post in detail and flagging up where he got waylaid by the very fluidity of trust I have, hopefully, also flagged up the many ways that we can be misled when looking at similar situations: 

“The obvious and rational equation is that being trustworthy plus being transparent will lead you to be trusted. Verification of trustworthiness should lead to trust. This makes sense. Being trustworthy (acting in a way that's worthy of trust) plus being transparent so that people can see your trustworthiness—this should be sufficient.”

Well, not really. This is a case of reciprocal trust that exists within the context of new relationships being formed or relationships being repaired but it is not the way, for instance we use trust with our friends or romantic partners or even close business associates. There trust is extended because we have a fairly clear understanding of the context of our relationships, a good grasp on the other party’s intent and motivation and therefore extend trust with a reasonable understanding of expectations as far as outcome is concerned. 

“How then, do we explain that brands like Coke and Google are trusted? The recipe is secret, the algorithm is secret, and competitors like DuckDuckGo certainly act in a more trustworthy way.”

Seth is right here in that Coke and Google do not act in a transparent way in terms of the secret sauce of their business, but it would be unreasonable for us to expect that and within the context of what makes a business unique it would be akin to an assault on a particular brand. Where both Google and Coke act in a very transparent manner is in the dealings they have with us, as customers and consumers of their content. In the way they foster relationships with business partners as well as consumers and in the way they share their values with us, marking a significant overlap and then help promote ours. 

“In fact, trust often comes from something very different. It's mostly about symbols, expectations and mystery.”

Here there is a little disconnect. Trust always comes from relationships and it always requires a sense of humanity. This is something I mentioned when I wrote The Trust Issue and it is something I frequently talk about in corporate settings when I give lectures on trust. 

“Consider the relationship you might enter into if you need surgery. You trust this woman to cut you open, you're putting your life in her hands... without the transparency of seeing all of her surgical statistics, interviewing all previous patients, evaluating her board scores. Instead, we leap into surgery on the basis of the recommendation from one doctor, on how the office feels, on a few minutes of bedside manner. We walk away from surgery because of a surly receptionist, or a cold demeanor.”

And here Seth is right and again it’s what I wrote about in The Trust Issue despite all out ability to access Big Data, have analytics, demand (and get) transparency, ultimately it comes down to the question “Can I trust this person?” based upon our perception of the kind of connection we have made with them (and he has made with us). 

“The same is true for just about all the food we eat. Not only don't we visit the slaughterhouse or the restaurant kitchen, we make an effort to avoid imagining that they even exist.”

Agreed, but in a world where we are overwhelmed with information that is agent-originated and therefore self-serving, we are all incredibly adept at forming our own shortcuts by the creation of a trusted network of friends, acquaintances and even news and reviews sources. 

“In most commercial and organizational engagements, trust is something we want and something we seek out, but we use the most basic semiotics and personal interactions to choose where to place our trust. And once the trust is broken, there's almost no amount of transparency that will help us change our mind.”

Seth is right in that the moment trust is broken, pretending to be “business as usual” is simply not going to work, to help get it back. 


“This is trust from ten thousand years ago, a hangover from a far less complex age when statistical data hadn't been conceived of, when unearthing history was unheard of. But that's now hard-wired into how we judge and are judged.”

Seth is right here on two counts: First, our sense of trust is a primitive, hardwired instinct or mechanism that allows us to survive in a complex, intimidating and often dangerous world by extending a sense of how it should work that is frequently a sanitized version of how it is most likely to work. As a result we are not overcome by anxiety, we do not freeze with fear and we manage to feel safe and relatively in control in the chaotic systems that are in full flow around us. Second, we do indeed judge and are judged by instinctive first impressions that have to do with a whole gamut of subtle cues, but we also then use more information to corroborate our feelings, afterwards. 

“Quick test: Consider how much you trust Trump, or Clinton, Cruz or Sanders, Scalia or RBG. Is that trust based on transparency? On a rational analysis of public statements and private acts? Or is it more hunch-filled than that? What are the signals and tropes you rely on? Tone of voice? Posture? Appearance? Would more transparency change your mind about someone you trust? What about someone you don't?”

There is a difference here between the personal trust we are prepared to extend to people we connect with because they become part of our extended community and the organizational trust we extend towards institutions, politicians and anyone holding High Office. The two work quite differently and there is a different type of approach and Seth conflates the two here thinking that because politicians try to be personal it is personal trust they are asking for (it is not). 

“It turns out that we grab trust when we need it, and that rebuilding trust after it's been torn is really quite difficult. Because our expectations (which weren't based on actual data) were shown to be false.”

Well, Seth is right that broken trust is not easy to rebuild but trust is not something we grab when we need it. It is always present in every situation where a relational exchange takes place and if it wasn’t there would be zero contact. No relationship. No connection. 

“Real trust (even in our modern culture) doesn't always come from divulging, from providing more transparency, but from the actions that people take (or that we think they take) before our eyes. It comes from people who show up before they have to, who help us when they think no one is watching. It comes from people and organizations that play a role that we need them to play.”

There is a gem of an observation made by Seth here in that trust “…comes from people who show up before they have to, who help us when they think no one is watching.” This is exactly how interpersonal trust is formed, how we create relationships that have incredibly strong bonds and need no further verification. But Seth is also wrong in thinking that real trust is something that is constant and discrete and only one of a kind. Restaurants which have independent reviews, use social trust, to get us through the door but then have a glass partition between us and the kitchen as a further display of transparency and by doing so engender operational trust in us and they also have excellent customer service which makes us feel they value the connection and help humanize the restaurant business. There are many different levels if trust and each arises from the context of its situation. 

“We trust people based on the hints they give us in their vocal tones, in the stands they take on irrelevant points of view and yes, on what others think. Mostly, people like us trust people like us.”

Here, Seth is absolutely right. We trust people based on our assessment of the information they convey through more than just speech and the more like us they are the more we feel there is a common subtext that makes communication easier and trust also easier to give. 

“The mystery that exists in situations without full transparency actually amplifies those feelings.”

But here Seth is also wrong. The trust that arises out of personal contact (and if we want to talk about irrationality, it has been proved time and again that we are actually willing to trust total strangers) is not the same that arises out of our relationship with businesses and brands where the quality of our connection with them and how much we are willing to trust them is directly proportional to the symmetry of the relationship they are forming with us. 

“I'm worried about two real problems, each worse than the other: a. The trustworthy person or organization that fails to understand or take action on the symbols and mysteries that actually lead to trust, and as a result, fails to make the impact they are capable of. b. The immoral person or organization who realizes that it's possible to be trusted without actually doing the hard work of being trustworthy.”

Seth’s worries here are very real and it has always been the case. In my book The Tribe That Discovered Trust I actually take a look at how and why conman succeed in conning us and also look at organizations that faced trust issues and how they overcame them (or not). 

“We may very well be moving toward a world where data is the dominant way we choose to make decisions about trust. In the meantime, the symbols and signals that mesh with our irrational worldviews continue to drive our thinking.”

Seth’s closing statement is only true insofar as our thinking is not as clear as it should be. 

Trust is a hugely complex issue and it underpins everything. As we get into the 21st century and examine its impact on remote, asynchronous transactions and a world driven by social media connections, we realize that by understanding how it actually works, how it is propagated, how it is lost and regained, we begin to use it better.  

Check out the Trust Resource Page for more information, links and resources.