In the January-February 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review, there is an article about IDEO, the famous design firm and innovation consultancy, titled “IDEO’s Culture of Helping.” One topic of the IDEO study especially interested me and inspired me to share an operational definition of “trust.”

The study at IDEO showed that to be perceived as a good “helper” in an organization, you have to be perceived as competent, accessible, and trustworthy. I think all these characteristics are important ones for establishing a climate for creativity in an organization (my main mission), particularly trustworthiness. In the article, “trust” was defined around “comfort” and “safety” in sharing thoughts and feelings; discussing mistakes and problems; and being able to count on the “intention” of helpers to help.

I learned an operational definition of “trust” many years ago that largely takes the “touchy-feely” out of the discussion. (My source attributed it to Fernando Flores, now president of Chile’s National Innovation Council for Competitiveness.) According to this definition, trust has three criteria:
1. Transparent agenda – There is only one agenda, not a public one and a private (hidden) one.
2. Competence – The person has the skill to do the job (mentioned in the HBR article as a helping characteristic separate from trust).
3. Track record – The person has a history of delivering what she or he says will be delivered.

I added a fourth criteria, “Capacity,” to the above list to address a chronic trust-related issue. (This seems related to accessibility at IDEO, mentioned in the HBR article as a helping characteristic separate from trust. It was defined as: how easily the respondent could obtain help from a person.) Working in high tech for many years, I know that sometimes a person just does not have the bandwidth to meet requests. It is important for all involved to acknowledge that regardless of intent or desire, capacity must be available to perform a requested action. No matter how good or reasonable the excuse is for not fulfilling the request, trust is eroded otherwise.

Whenever trust is an issue with a person or on a project, I apply the four criteria and the model has never failed me. Discussing these criteria takes the emotion out of the discussion and allows trust issues to be discussed objectively.

About Susan Jamison

During her high-tech career at IBM and Sun Microsystems, Susan Jamison became expert at taking on challenging initiatives and bringing out the best in people to deliver great results.

As founder and CEO of CLUE Institute, Susan shows individuals how to develop greater personal power and fulfillment so they become more effective in their work, and ultimately build lasting competencies for personal and organizational excellence.