Trust Doesn’t Scale

RulerMy son knows that I am highly interested in anything having to do with trust, so he recently shared a quote that was generated by Taylor Swift, the country music singer. Taylor said,

“Trust doesn’t scale because it isn’t reducible to math.”

That quote was really thought-provoking for me. I believe her point was that trust involves emotion and risk, and those things are part of the human condition similar to the concept of love.

As I thought about it more, I think her observation about trust breaks down. There are several reasons why trust does scale.

1. You can add it or add to it – If I trust one person to do something, I can increase the level of trust into other areas and have higher total trust with that person. The word “total” here implies a kind of addition. Likewise including another person into the equation means that I can add more trust.

2. You can subtract trust – I often make the analogy that trust is like a bank account. The balance is the important number, and we can make withdrawals to the account just as easily as we can make deposits. In fact, the whole account can be wiped out in a single action.

In English is sounds like this, “I have trusted George for 10 years; he has never given me any reason to doubt him, but after he said that yesterday I will never trust him again.”

3. You can multiply trust – If I take one person who has trust in a cause, I have that singular endorsement, but if I bring a dozen people who also trust that same cause, I will have more than the sum of 12 individual forces. There is a kind of synergy when we multiply the trust of several people.

4. Dividing trust takes a little imagination – What if I have high level of trust with a person but that person fails to deliver as promised. Now my level of trust is significantly reduced, like it was divided in half or some other percentage.

I suppose I could go on taking the mathematical analogy to an extreme and describe the square root or cosine of trust. I suspect the pushback would be deafening.

Many people believe trust is a “soft” skill and that programs to improve organizational trust frequently include campfires and singing Kumbaya. In reality trust is a hard and tangible commodity that is rather easy to measure.

Richard Edelman measures trust in extensive surveys in dozens of countries every year and publishes a “Trust Barometer” to share the work of his team.

The fact that I can say trust in Business in the USA for 2013 was slightly under 60% while trust in the Government was somewhat under 40% indicates that trust does scale and can be measured.

This is especially true if we use data on trust to spot trends by asking the same questions year after year.

In my own business, I use the “Leadergrow Trust Survey” to measure the level of trust on many dimensions and at various levels in any organization.

This research allows me to customize leadership development programs for groups so they are laser-focused on the specific needs of the organization or the leaders involved.

I really do believe trust is scalable and hope this little piece has caused you to think about trust in a different way from before.

Apologies to Taylor Swift: I like your music, but do not agree with your quote that trust doesn’t scale.

17 Responses to Trust Doesn’t Scale

  1. I agree Bob. Trust is generative and builds on itself because it creates expectations of trustworthy behaviour and norms where people create more and more trust with transparency, sound ethics, joint planning and decision-making, etc. People also use trust in an organization as a proxy for trust in the individual which is scaleable. I’m pretty sure Taylor Swift can ‘shake it off’ this minor dissent of ours. Happy Holidays

    • trustambassador says:

      Right Dominique. I am pretty sure Taylor Swift is not put off by my comments on her quote. She is doing very well thank you. Thanks as always for your comment.

  2. laura says:

    I think one can build trust by consistent action and following up with transparent communication when things have to change in unexpected ways. I also think it’s much more difficult to rebuild trust after it has been subtracted or divided. Trust is eroded by inconsistency and dishonesty… the old adage comes to mind: Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks Laura. I think trust is an ever-fascinating thing. It has so many dimensions. Keeps me pretty busy with my work. Appreciate your feedback.

  3. bobvanourek says:

    I also suspect that trust often scales geometrically in a group, as in a log scale or exponentially. My experience with high-trust groups is that their performance and innovation are extraordinary and self-reinforcing. The more they succeed, the more they trust; and the more they trust, the more they succeed. It often leads to “flow” and is life-changing to experience.

    • trustambassador says:

      Great observation, Bob. Another one of my firends came up with the same kind of comment. He called it the “virality” of trust or mistrust. It is because we tend to tell other people when we trust someone or not. So the situation can easily go viral, or as you put it “geometric.” I am going to do another article on this concept, and I will give you and Fred Dewey a tip of the hat for the idea.

  4. Doctor Derek Ambrose says:

    Agree with the article, sometimes people say things that are sectional to themselves without the wider perspective being considered, maybe Taylor was in this cohort. However, there is another dimension to trust, a higher level, that links with behavioural integrity, an that is absolute trust. I have written a paper on this. Doctor Derek Ambrose

  5. Andrew Brady says:

    Hey Bob you make some great points here. The one piece about trusting relationships that is difficult to scale is time. While not necessarily a requirement for building trust, it seems that “face time” can be a powerful way to build trust and of course time is limited. For example, when a company grows so that it is no longer possible for the leader to know the name and build a relationship with every employee, the leader will need to employ different mechanisms for building trust. What do you think?

    • trustambassador says:

      Great comments, Andrew. I may play around with the concept in a future article myself. In a virtual world, we do have less face time by definition, so real trust is at a disadvantage as a result. Excellent point.

  6. Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.

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  8. trustambassador says:

    Hi. Thanks for your interest…Right on the top of the home page on the right. Click “Sign me up.” You will get an e-mail every time I publish a new article.

  9. Chester says:

    Try as I might, I can’t find where (song/interview/X) Taylor Swift said that. Do you have a reference?

    (not questioning you/your son, nor the lack of one makes less of an argument here, just wanted to quote from the source in another context)

    Thanks! 🙂

  10. trustambassador says:

    I am checking with my son on this.

  11. trustambassador says:

    My bad. I misunderstood a note sent to me by my son. Here was a link about scaling trust. He then went on to write something about Taylor Swift and I confused what he was trying to tell me.

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