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The Trust Equation - What Trust Looks Like

One aspect of being a coach that I find particularly stimulating is the sheer diversity of issues that are presented. This is not altogether surprising - ultimately this is about people. Therefore the issues that individuals choose to bring to the coaching environment will always reflect personal context, circumstance and the particular angle the person wishes to progress. 

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With that said I have recently spent some time reflecting on what I am hearing that’s new and appearing consistently in what I might describe as the coaching content box. In other words, what might be emerging as today’s priority agenda items for exploration.  I am thinking here about the themes and issues that today’s leadership population are being challenged to find answers to in order to help their people and organisations survive and hopefully prosper in the Covid era? 

So, what’s coming up?

In headline terms leadership coachees are bringing new, and in some cases truly unique issues, to the coaching space.  

To this point, many leaders are working incredibly hard to develop new ways of supporting people effectively through this unprecedented period of instability and change.  Workplace flexibility, personal wellbeing and resilience-based issues have come to the fore in a way that many of us have never seen before. Much of this driven by the need to come to terms with an increasingly virtual and remote world where face to face contact is much reduced.

Rooted in this so called “new reality” I am seeing one theme in particular coming to prominence; it’s a familiar challenge but one with a new twist that appears to be confronting so many leaders at this difficult time - the thorny dilemma of how to create, maintain and develop trust and engagement with colleagues when contact time is increasingly via virtual platforms like Zoom or Teams. Does this sound familiar? 

But to open this up a bit what exactly is trust and how can we consciously work on improving the level of trust that people have in us? Well, a really helpful model to consider is the Trust Equation; first introduced by David Maister in his book “The Trusted Advisor “(2000). 

I have introduced this approach to a number of leadership coachees over the last few months and feedback indicates it making a difference for those leaders who choose to employ this theory in practice. As such, once you understand the equation you can use it to help drive your behaviour and make conscious efforts to “dial up” aspects of how you are with other people in order to increase the level of trust they have in you. 

Significantly in my view the opportunities opened up by the model are just as applicable in the world of virtual leadership as the face to face environment. 

So, what is Maister’s Trust Equation model actually saying? 




OK, let’s take some time to think about what this means and how it can help us understand how and why people trust us or not.

The reality of course is that people constantly review and evaluate our behaviour and form a view about how they feel about us including whether or not they trust us. Think about your own view of people – my guess is you will trust some more than others albeit you may not particularly understand why this is the case. 

Firstly, let’s look at Credibility. In headline terms and let’s think about this in the context of a professional working relationship, does the person in front of us actually know their stuff? Has this individual the knowledge and experience required to drive the agenda and is therefore someone we could put our faith in? 

What of Reliability? Ultimately if we are to trust someone, we have to feel they are going to deliver on their promises to us. As such, people who repeatedly let us down are very often seen as unreliable and therefore fundamentally untrustworthy. Similarly, there is an angle here of consistency of behaviour; many of us have worked with people who are difficult to predict – how they are with us one day might be very different the next. For most this level of uncertainty in behaviour can make such relationships challenging to say the least. 

Intimacy is perhaps the most easily relatable element of Maister’s model. The focus here is on what I describe as genuine connection and interest. In other words, does the person you might wish to trust actually care about you and your views? Similarly, and perhaps you might wish to bring someone to mind here, would you trust the individual concerned with confidential “personal” information? The chances are that when we think of people who have let us down and betrayed our confidence in them, we think of them in a negative way; the trusting element of the relationship is damaged or perhaps broken beyond repair.

So, just from these brief descriptors you can start to form a view of the key elements that sit above the line and how credibility, reliability and intimacy can help us get a strong understanding of what it takes to create true high trust relationships. With that said the numerators only provide part of the story; in my view it’s the denominator i.e. Self-Orientation (or Self Interest as it’s sometimes known), that creates the breakthrough insight. 

Self-Orientation effectively asks the question about where the person’s focus and priority actually sits. As such, and try thinking about this in the context of being led by someone in a team environment, does the person being brought to mind have the best interests of the team at heart or are they really focused on furthering their own agenda and reputation? 

For many people although credibility, reliability and intimacy are important and welcome personal traits, working with someone who appears not to care about the collective interest and prioritises their own needs and position can be the differentiating factor. At the extreme, leaders who constantly put their own interests first run the risk of eroding trust in an instant regardless of any strength’s they may have in terms of credibility, reliability and intimacy. 

It’s my intention, that this simple model has created some food for thought for you. To summarise, although it’s important to have the requisite knowledge and experience, be dependable and have genuine connection with people, if others sense that the direction of travel is towards self-interest, trust will always be suboptimal. 

So, when we think about our own leadership and behaviour around other people, take some time to reflect on what you might be able to do differently and better. What’s the opportunity to demonstrate your competence, become more reliable for people and get closer to those alongside you?  Similarly, of course, what scope exists to really help people understand that you are delivering in the best interests of the whole?  Opportunity beckons! 

At The Leadership Coaches, we know that leaders benefit from working with our credible and personable coaches on issues like developing trust and a wide range of dilemmas thrown up by today’s fast moving and uncertain working environment. We have the skills and approach to support and help our clients meet the new reality with confidence.

We would love to support you and your Leadership team colleagues on the journey ahead. If you would like to explore how we can help and develop a conversation, please get in touch with or call us on 03450 950 480 to discuss your needs or to set up your complimentary coaching chemistry session with a couple of The Leadership Coaches. 

Article written by Paul (ACC) – Leadership Coach at The Leadership Coaches (October 2020)


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