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From military teams to CEOs, financial regulators to the telecoms sector. Trust is not just an abstract concept, it can be precisely measured across all of its components.

In Part 1 of our exploration of Trust & Trustworthiness, we clarified some common terms confused with trust, particularly those co-opted by marketers and brand managers. As for an agreed definition of trust, most in the field have settled upon:

“Trust is the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.”

Mayer, Davis, Schoorman (1995)

The organisational literature on trust cites this definition over 1300 times according to the Web of Science. Whilst a widely used and agreed upon definition, one that aligns researchers and practitioners alike is useful, an agreed upon and widely used measure of trust has not clearly emerged.

Measures originated in the interpersonal realm, measuring trust in individuals from a dispositional perspective. That is, measures designed to measure differences in individuals’ propensity to trust society at large or others in general, and treated trust as a relatively stable individual trait. Such measures remains important, since individual’s disposition to trust varies considerably based upon life experiences and individual psychological adjustment. An interpersonal trust measure can identify candidates that have a limited propensity to extend trust—i.e. a limited willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another.

For organisational leaders to display this trait can be a recipe for disaster in the workplace. Contrary to many popular trust myths, those unwilling to extend trust are rarely trusted themselves.

Trust in other referents, such as groups, organisations and industry sectors can be more effectively measured using using psychometric techniques. The psychometric approach to measurement typically takes the form of a multi-item survey that includes a variety of questions intended to capture different theoretical components of trust.

There are three components of trust and these all are critical in a holistic measurement of trust:

  • Trustworthiness beliefs—An expectation or belief about another party, which is perceptual or attitudinal;
  • Trusting intentions—A willingness to make oneself vulnerable, which is intentional or volitional;
  • Trusting behaviours—A risk-taking act, which is behavioural.

Trust is measurable across all of its components and some measurement instruments combine measures of different components to give validated and comprehensive measures of all aspects of trust.

Most popular trust surveys, such as the Edelman Trust Barometer (ETB), are attitudinal measures of “trustworthiness beliefs.” What is more, these measures are simplifications, they do not recognise the multi-dimensionality of trust (trust is not just based upon doing “what is right”—which may be closest a measure of integrity). ETB and other attitudinal measures of trust are limited since both the intentional and behavioural forms of trust are important with regard to decisions around risk-taking behaviours and intentions to be vulnerable.

Many informal polls of trust show that public trust in office-holders and professionals of many sorts is low and declining. However such attitudes may not reflect actual behaviours. Post 2008, trust in financial institutions was at an all time attitudinal low. Further data in public intentions to be vulnerable and actual behaviour would be vital in determining the true dynamics of public trust and distrust in the wake of the financial crisis.

Comprehensive measures of trust, across broad demographic (sub) groups are necessary to get accurate baselines of trust in professions, industry sectors and individual organisations.

Trust in individuals, teams, organisations and firms, even sectors. All can be comprehensively measured using psychometric, validated, instruments precisely tailored to the appropriate context. Not only does this provides insight into beliefs, it can reveal behavioural intentions and actual behavioural patterns so critical to building and rebuilding relationships.

Such measurements matrices offer Reciprocom the opportunity to operationalise and eventually optimise trust.

Andrew Roberts

Author Andrew Roberts

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