The Most Over-Rated Component in Building Trust

Trust wins and keeps customers. Trust breeds loyalty and commitment in employees and colleagues. And trust builds confidence in investors and shareholders. Trustworthiness strengthens relationships and the bottom line.

Too many leaders, though, don’t realize that they need more than positional authority and expertise to win and maintain trust.

What else goes into trust? Charles H. Green, co-author of Trusted Advisor and founder of Trusted Advisor Associates LLC, developed a helpful model of trustworthiness that identifies four components: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation.

Credibility: our words, skills and credentials, along with how people experience us.

I worked with one senior executive (let’s call her Debbie) who is a great example of someone who demonstrated trustworthiness in one component (credibility) but not the others. Debbie was an extremely smart strategic thinker and a creative business visionary. She was also an articulate and impressive public speaker who was able to motivate others to follow her in turning the vision into reality. Her businesses generated strong financial results. Her smarts, skills and business success made her credible with clients, investors and her team.

Reliability: our actions, follow-through and predictability.

Debbie, though highly credible in many ways, undermined her reliability when she said one thing and did another. She said she wanted open dialogue and debate among her leadership team. However, when people disagreed with her, she made them pay by humiliating them or sidelining them. Her pattern of squashing those who challenged her ideas became predictable – but in a way that eroded trust.

Intimacy: extent to which people feel they can confide in us and find us empathetic.

Though intellectually intelligent, Debbie had the emotional intelligence of a bar of soap.


And she was overly political. Over time, people distanced themselves from her because of her subtly threatening style, her lack of empathy and her lack of vulnerability. At team social events, people avoided her. And they definitely did not confide in her.

Self-orientation: the more people feel we are focused on ourselves (instead of them), the less they trust us.

Debbie’s co-workers felt she had her own unspoken primary agenda: her own advancement and success. She tried to pressure a direct report to misrepresent financial results, for example, to make herself look good. Fortunately, he confided in one of her peers who transferred him into his group before she was able to sideline him.

Debbie led with her strong expertise and credibility, but her inconsistency in reliability and her weaknesses in intimacy and self-orientation derailed her. Eventually, she ticked off one too many leaders, was sent to corporate Siberia and later left the company. She lost their trust despite her expertise.

If Debbie had focused on the weaknesses that brought her down, she could have made big improvements in her trustworthiness and continued to be successful in the organization. As Green and his colleagues Styer and Bowers say, “The skills of intimacy are among the most learnable. It is easier to learn to listen and to empathize than it is to gain an advanced degree.”

I’m all for leveraging strengths, but when it comes to the critical task of building trust, it often pays to focus on improving weak areas.

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Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. He loves helping senior leaders strengthen their trustworthiness. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr