Trust in the Age of Digital Transformation: An Interview with Charles Green

Charles Green is an author, consultant-advisor, keynote speaker, and founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates. His books include “The Trusted Advisor” and “Trust-based Selling.” Drawing from his deep background as a management consultant, Green’s mission is to help individuals and organizations build trusted business relationships and make better decisions for themselves. 

 

Hi, Charles. Trust is a foundational concept, but it also seems to be one of those loaded words that gets thrown around without a lot of thought. Can you distinguish between the concepts of trust and being trustworthy?

That’s a key distinction. My quick headline is that trust is the result of a relationship between two parties: One party whose job is to take a risk and trust another party, and the other party, who proves himself or herself to be trustworthy, or not. So when trusting meets trustworthy, that equals trust. When we talk about a relationship of trust, we’re talking about the net result. We’re talking about trustworthiness, which concerns the attributes of the person who would be trusted.

So the definitions and the dynamics of trust are very important because, as you said, we often use these words so casually. I always open my talks by saying, well, let’s be clear and use a very common-sense definition of trust. Building trust relationships is not like building mutual relationships based on friendship or love. Trust is different, with different roles. Somebody kicks it off by taking the risk to trust another person. The other person then either proves himself or herself worthy or not. So the trust equation (below and at https://trustedadvisor.com/) is really the trustworthiness equation. It’s half the battle.

The Trust Equation

So the Trust Equation helps people quantify or benchmark trustworthiness?  

Exactly. If you are interested in building relationships, it’s worth spending a few minutes to gain some insights. The Trust Quotient Assessment is an instrument we developed that measures trustworthiness as a composite of four variables: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation. Each respondent’s trustworthiness score is determined by answering 20 questions, which produce an overall score from 20 to 100. On the Trusted Advisor website, just click the Take the Trust Quotient Assessment link at the top of the page.

How does trust scale from individuals up to a large enterprise organization? 

My point of view is that the strongest form of trust is personal. It’s between people, not between people and institutions. I know we say we trust Apple, we trust FedEx—but it’s a weaker form of trust. I trust FedEx to deliver my packages. I do not trust FedEx to babysit my granddaughter. The components of the Trust Equation (see image above) are credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation. And the way you scale it is to look at the aspects of interpersonal trust that you can transfer over to the scale of a large company. We have stats and metrics to indicate whether or not a company is reliable or credible. You can observe whether a company’s leaders have intimate relationships with their staff. Ditto with self-orientation. Companies lose a lot when customers identify them as self-obsessed or selfish.

In my opinion, the way you scale trust is to make sure that the company adheres to those four principles, which basically encourage transparency, long-term collaboration, and the attitude that all customers are stakeholders.

It seems that scaling trust is growing in importance as we see more of these large ecosystem partnerships starting to happen. Enterprises and startups, government agencies and for-profit businesses are joining forces. Leaders want to create a diversity of opinions and a healthy debate around how to innovate and move forward into the future.

Regarding trust, I suggest that if you’re in for a dime, you’re in for a dollar. You can’t really be trustworthy and trusting only with your internal people, or only with your customers. You’re a hypocrite if you’re only trustworthy to your customers and not to the government, or vice versa. This actually shows up with some of our clients. They talk about how they really trust each other internally, but not so much with their clients. Well, how long can you sustain that? We are talking about human integrity, and it just doesn’t add up to say we behave a certain way with this group of people, but not with others.

If I’m a chief innovation officer in an enterprise organization, my role is to change the way we do business, be more collaborative, re-imagine our processes, and prepare for the future. How do we get people to trust that vision? 

If you look at change management, organizational leaders and consultants put a lot of emphasis on things like clear vision, incentive systems, and metrics. I don’t think that approach works as well when it comes to trust. If you look at the trust equation, two of the variables are credibility and reliability. The other two, intimacy and self-orientation, go deep into interpersonal interactions, and you can’t incentivize people to be unselfish. What you can do is distill it down to a few key principles, including client focus, client collaboration, and transparency. Also focus on long-term relationships, not short-term transactions.

If you spread that gospel religiously, and regularly, make sure those principles are understood by everybody and your leaders consistently apply those principles to very specific situations, then you create an organization that behaves that way. You’ve got to be very clear what your principles are, talk about them all the time, and especially, you have to apply them. So the key to scaling trust turns out to be a lot of conversation, focus on certain vocabulary and consistently preaching the gospel, so to speak.

If we’re making that distinction, metrics-driven versus mission-driven, how do you know when your mission is accomplished?

Building trust is never “mission accomplished.” It’s a constant aspiration. If you join the FBI, for example, you take an oath to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic. That’s never-ending. In the private sector, Goldman Sachs used to talk about the importance of being “long-term selfish,” meaning that constantly acting in the long-term best interest of our clients is a powerful mission. If you fall off of that mission and start behaving in short-term, transactional ways, it falls apart. So it’s there is no mission accomplished without constant maintenance of this higher vision.

Let’s talk about mindset. There are long-term growth mindsets and short-term mindsets. It seems easier to trust organizations that we believe are in it for the long term. 

If you get the mindset right, the behaviors are going to follow. Look at sales and business development. Most companies think in terms of, what’s the purpose of sales? To get the sale, and the purpose of sales training is to get better at getting the sale. But what if that’s not the objective? What if the objective were to add value for customers consistently over time? Say we are buying something complex, like a long term health care plan or eldercare for your parents. It’s complicated, expensive, and you don’t have the expertise.

If you’re dealing with somebody that operates from the perspective of helping customers rather than making sales, that manifests itself in many ways. They would be driven by your timeframe, not quarterly goals. They would be transparent, honest, and answer any questions openly. They would, in principle, be willing to refer you to a competitor, if it were the right thing. By starting with the right mindset, the behaviors begin to follow. The higher-level aspects of trust are better served by fixing your mindset first, and not focusing on the behaviors. The behaviors will show up.

It seems like that credibility, that long-term mindset, is kind of like a magnet. You don’t have to do a lot of convincing or persuading. 

If you are clearly focused on the needs of your audience, and on their timeframe, that mindset comes through in any conversation you have. As buyers, that’s who we want to deal with, people who behave that way.

So how has the nature of interpersonal trust evolved as we increasingly move toward digital technologies?

My headline is that the nature of interpersonal trust itself does not change at all; it has not changed for millennia or eons. Because we have more digital interactions and fewer personal interactions, the importance of those in-person interactions actually increases. Let’s say you spent 20% of your time in the old days interacting with salespeople, and now it’s 10%. Well, that means there’s even more weight put on that 10%, so you must spend it doing something that really builds trust and adds value. So I’d argue the importance of interpersonal trust and relationships increase in a digital era, as there are fewer in-person communications.

Software Abstract

 

Even this video conferencing software we’re using for this interview is electronically mediated. How does that affect the trust level of trust you and I might establish?

It’s incumbent on us to sort of maximize whatever level of bandwidth we have available. The fact that we’re using video instead of just audio helps tremendously, as we’re all hardwired to pick up on all these visual inputs and cues that make communication more effective. For the same reason, you should have photos of yourself on your website to supplement your text. There are levels of interpersonal communication. If we’re substituting email instead of voicemail, that drops it down a level. Substituting chat for email, that potentially drops it down a level as well. We need to maximize the level of personal connection we can get from any electronic medium we use. I’m discovering that the ability to use video conferencing like this doesn’t have to be as limiting, and we can actually accomplish quite a bit.

Video on the web was less common and lower quality a decade ago. As technology advances, we’re going to have holograms and augmented reality that make it look as if we’re in the same room. Does the pattern you’re describing hold true then? 

I think so. In all these cases we want to mimic face-to-face, what I call full-bandwidth communication. If you look at the evolution of chat, we use emojis and we keep adding more. Emojis are attempts to express emotions, the same way we use all caps in an email.

Holograms are beautiful because they feel much more like in-person interactions. We’re still basically the same protein-based, hardwired humanoids. In many ways, we still work the way we did 50 years ago, and that’s not changing. So what we need to do is make the technology reflect, as much as possible, the nature of how we really communicate. We are happy to sacrifice certain interpersonal interactions for the sake of efficiency as long as it’s dependable and trustworthy, in the narrow sense of the word. But again, that raises the importance of the remaining in-person interactions that we do have.

As someone who studies trust, what’s your take on the sharing economy that’s grown so much in the last few years? 

I have a slightly different view of that. I was very aware of the sharing economy when it first emerged. If you look at what’s happening with Airbnb and what’s happening with Uber, the lovely, left-coast feeling of warmth and community seems to be gone. The reason we use Airbnb or Uber or Lyft is that they have become institutionalized. There are safeguards in place to prevent abuse, and you can file a complaint and you can get recompense. These companies are taking great care to make sure that they vet employees and community members in advance. It’s become more like a public utility. So I don’t think our relationships with these companies have a lot to do with trust anymore. It’s been institutionalized and I don’t think there’s a lot of trust involved.

What about the joke Ronald Reagan used to make that “the most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, I’m here to help?’” It seemed like there was a warning there as well as some humor. 

There is some truth in that, but things evolve. Look at what’s happening with scooter-sharing. The smart scooter companies are now going directly to municipal governments and saying, let’s partner on this thing. So we avoid some of the bad stuff that happens with scooter-sharing. If you look at what’s happening with Facebook, I think they’ve been trying like crazy to avoid dealing with the government and it’s starting to bite them in the foot. Now it’s a rat’s nest. You’re seeing a lot of people in various organizations calling for Facebook to be regulated and to figure out whether it should be classified as a media organization. Is Facebook first-amendment relevant, or not?

Facebook in particular seems to be drawing fire for saying it won’t stop untruthful political ads. 

I suspect that’s not a sustainable point of view for them, but we’ll see.

It seems like it’s incumbent on these tech titans to manage public trust or face the consequences of a citizenry that becomes outraged and pushes for government oversight.

If you’re a responsible, farsighted leader, I don’t see any point failing to engage with the government, because you’re going to be dealing with anti-monopoly laws. In general, enlightened leaders ought to realize that they must work with the government to figure out a proactive way to engage rather than waiting for it to blow up in your face.

Regulating technology is a huge challenge. When we talk about tech like artificial intelligence (AI) it’s a double-edged sword. The technology could help us save the world, or become weaponized and destroy it.  

It raises the stakes. The consequences of remaining in a combative state versus a collaborative state just get magnified. And yes, the unconscious bias that we build into AI is an issue. And unless the parties involved are willing to be transparent, you know, reaching out beyond the divide, behaving in collaborative ways with others, those natural tensions and issues are going to come to the surface.

Tell us some of the most important insights you’ve had in your years of research and consulting on trust-building. 

Over 100,000 people have taken the Trust Equation assessment and I think three headlines stand out:

First, women score higher than men in trustworthiness by a statistically significant amount. This makes sense because women consistently score higher in intimacy.

The second one is about the most- and least-trusted professions. Everybody guesses that the bottom three are lawyers, politicians, and used car sales. What about the most-trusted professions? Not teachers, not doctors, not clergy—nursing is the consistent winner. If you had to define the most critical trust component for any nurse—male or female—it’s probably intimacy. We feel safe and secure with nurses. You can say anything, you can ask them anything. It’s their job to make you feel comfortable when you’re literally and figuratively naked in front of them.

Finally, in analyzing data from 70,000 people, the strongest factor of trustworthiness turned out to be intimacy. It’s interesting to our audiences because we deal with professionals like accountants, lawyers, consultants, technologists, supply chain people, and people in business development. None of them were hired for their great intimacy skills. They all believe in the power of hard data, logic, and tight analyses. But to build trustworthiness, soft skills are more important than hard data.

Fascinating stuff! Thanks for spending some time with us and telling us more about your work!

It was my pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity!