How Transparency Makes the Trust Leap Possible

Evolution of trust

    Trust is a fundamental building block in relationships—a discount or premium depending on the level of trust we have. The delta between the two could be significant. It could make or break a deal, an opportunity, or a relationship. What can we do about trust?

    We don't buy it, though some try, or reinforce it by telling people they should “just trust us.” Trust is one of those things we get as a result of doing something else better, and it's part of our better nature. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker says:

“People do more for their fellows than return favors and punish cheaters. They often perform generous acts without the slightest hope for payback ranging from leaving a tip in a restaurant they will never visit again to throwing themselves on a live grenade to save their brothers in arms. [Robert] Trivers together with the economists Robert Frank and Jack Hirshleifer has pointed out that pure magnanimity can evolve in an environment of people seeking to discriminate fair weather friends from loyal allies. Signs of heartfelt loyalty and generosity serve as guarantors of one's promises reducing a partner's worry that you will default on them. The best way to convince a skeptic that you are trustworthy and generous is to be trustworthy and generous.”

    When we focus on being trustworthy, we demonstrate integrity in the way we behave—we do what we say we're going to do, and do so ethically. Because the kind of things we say does matter to the quality of the experience we want to create, not just trust itself.

    Which is why trust was born locally. When we know someone, when their part of our community, we have two things going for us— 1./ more information from interactions, are they really who they portray themselves to be? And 2./ more social pressure to behave consistently on the nice side of things. Fear of retribution could be an incentive, but also the desire to contribute positively to the collective well-being.

    When institutions were first created, the idea was to bring people working in different parts of the organization together to deliver collective promises. Since we know from many reports and sources, including daily news that trust in institutions is down, we can safely infer that the gap between promises made and promises kept has widened considerably.

    And that gap is where technology has come in to shed some light, or rather create better transparency of what is going on. Trust researcher Rachel Botsman defines trust as “a confident relationship to the unknown.”

    She says:

when you view trust through this lens, it starts to explain why it has the unique capacity to enable us to cope with uncertainty, to place our faith in strangers, to keep moving forward.

Human beings are remarkable at taking trust leaps. Do you remember the first time you put your credit card details into a website? That's a trust leap. I distinctly remember telling my dad that I wanted to buy a navy blue secondhand Peugeot on eBay, and he rightfully pointed out that the seller's name was "Invisible Wizard" and that this probably was not such a good idea.

    Botsman's work is focused on researching how technology is changing the human glue to society. Why companies like AirBnB and Uber are successful, despite their brokering connections between complete strangers, and the evolving line in how we trust each other.

For instance, do men and women trust differently in digital environments? Does the way we build trust face-to-face translate online? Does trust transfer? So if you trust finding a mate on Tinder, are you more likely to trust finding a ride on BlaBlaCar [French ride sharing company]?

But from studying hundreds of networks and marketplaces, there is a common pattern that people follow, and I call it "climbing the trust stack."

Technology trust stack

    She says trust has only evolved in three significant chapters throughout the course of human history—local, institutional, and the age we're now entering, which is distributed trust, using technology to create transparency.

For a long time, until the mid-1800s, trust was built around tight-knit relationships. So say I lived in a village with the first five rows of this audience, and we all knew one another, and say I wanted to borrow money. The man who had his eyes wide open, he might lend it to me, and if I didn't pay him back, you'd all know I was dodgy. I would get a bad reputation, and you would refuse to do business with me in the future.

Trust was mostly local and accountability-based.

In the mid-19th century, society went through a tremendous amount of change. People moved to fast-growing cities such as London and San Francisco, and a local banker here was replaced by large corporations that didn't know us as individuals. We started to place our trust into black box systems of authority, things like legal contracts and regulation and insurance, and less trust directly in other people. Trust became institutional and commission-based.

    The black box system also had a robust marketing engine, which included what in communication we have called propaganda to indicate the wild west of getting the message out and building authority based on power unbalances.

    Says Botsman:

It's widely talked about how trust in institutions and many corporate brands has been steadily declining and continues to do so. I am constantly stunned by major breaches of trust: the News Corp phone hacking, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the widespread abuse in the Catholic Church, the fact that only one measly banker went to jail after the great financial crisis, or more recently the Panama Papers that revealed how the rich can exploit offshore tax regimes. And the thing that really surprises me is why do leaders find it so hard to apologize, I mean sincerely apologize, when our trust is broken?


It would be easy to conclude that institutional trust isn't working because we are fed up with the sheer audacity of dishonest elites, but what's happening now runs deeper than the rampant questioning of the size and structure of institutions. We're starting to realize that institutional trust wasn't designed for the digital age. Conventions of how trust is built, managed, lost and repaired — in brands, leaders and entire systems — is being turned upside down.

    This is ans exciting prospect, but it's also frightening. Because it forces many of us to have to rethink how trust is built and destroyed with our customers, with our employees, even our loved ones. For example, she says, the reason why we would likely not leave a towel on the bathroom floor (as we do at hotels) at an AirBnB is that guests are rated by hosts:

and that those ratings are likely to impact their ability to transact in the future. It's a simple illustration of how online trust will change our behaviors in the real world, make us more accountable in ways we cannot yet even imagine.

    In the early days of social media, the space between free—the cultural underpinning of the Web to date —and paid for by —as in sponsored, which is what pays for all the free stuff— was social capital. Now with social networks, things have gotten a bit more muddled. But it still holds true. Because the things we do for free, cost us something —attention, time, effort. What they earn us is advancement in relationships, share of mind, and top of mind.

    But it's not as straight a line or not as fast to converting that social capital. We may need to add products and services people can pay for to keep being generous with our time and work. For example, access to speaking opportunities, or consulting work. [Please, feel free to inquire, if you're looking to take control of the narrative.]

    The way we treat trust in society is changing, Says Botsman:

and it's creating this big shift away from the 20th century that was defined by institutional trust towards the 21st century that will be fueled by distributed trust. Trust is no longer top-down. It's being unbundled and inverted. It's no longer opaque and linear. A new recipe for trust is emerging that once again is distributed among people and is accountability-based.

2tst century trust

    Many of us may be comfortable getting into cars driven by strangers, meeting up with someone we swiped right to be matched with, and sharing our homes with people we do not know. So there is a trust shift that technology platforms create, which allows these kinds of things to have scale.

    But there is one technology platform where we still need help and that is conversation. At the same time this revolution in how we share and meet up is happening, the friction-less ways in which we can find a place to stay and a ready ride, we also desire and crave the type of connections and rapport we can only build over time.

    We seek for something to say beyond the posts to social networks and media at our disposal, something that feels genuine, that in a way cannot be gamed, to help us bring our story to the fore, explain ourselves to us, and get us in conversation with reality—and not just score us gold stars and points.

    As poet David Whyte says, conversation is the meeting of self with the world, the frontier of how we negotiate meaning. The degree to which we pay attention to things outside of us and our own intention creates our identity.

    For my part I want to help people understand the anatomy of conversation and what happens to the body and mind as we go about testing the different levels of discourse so we can get ourselves right and embrace the opportunities to be more purposeful and attractive at the same time as we, in the words of Rachel Botsman, “embrace the opportunities to redesign systems that are more transparent, inclusive and accountable.”


Botsman recommends additional readings Trust and Trustworthiness by Russell Hardin, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Chris Hayes.


    If you're interested in engaging my services, I help organizations attract opportunity and create or increase brand value through mastery of conversation and technology. My simple process is designed to discover the facts, take control of the narrative, strategize solutions and processes, design experience for performance, and master the simple, sustainable actions that accelerate momentum and growth.