A Formula for Trust: Sincerity, Competence, and Character

“I don’t know if I trust my CFO,” my client said.

“On what level?” I responded.

She looked at me, perplexed.

Did you know that there’s a formula for Trust? Often, we think of trust in binaries: either we trust someone or we don’t. However, the formula for trust is more nuanced than we might think.

Learning the components of trust can help us understand what parts are missing from a person or situation so that we can more clearly identify what’s causing our concern. If we can name it, we can address it.

Frequently, when trust is in question, there’s a lack of one of the following three things: Sincerity, Competence, and Character Each of these components is an element of reliability. If someone means what they say, is good at what they do, and shows up to meet commitments, their reliability and self-accountability are the stuff from which trust is borne.

Let’s look at these more closely:

  1. Sincerity is the virtue of one who communicates and acts in accordance with the entirety of their feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and desires in a manner that is honest and genuine. It’s the quality of being free from pretense, deceit, or hypocrisy.
  2. Competence is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. the quality or state of having sufficient knowledge, judgment, skill, or strength. The NIH Office of Human Resources describes the difference between competencies and skills as: “Competencies are the knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors that contribute to individual and organizational performance. Knowledge is information developed or learned through experience, study, or investigation. Skill is the result of repeatedly applying knowledge or ability.”
  3. Character is the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. Your character is your personality, especially how reliable and honest you are.

When all of these factors are in place, we know we can rely on someone to show up and deliver.

Building our understanding of the three components of trust allows us to develop a toolkit that supports us in approaching, working with, or confronting folks when we recognize they don't have our full confidence. When we are able to consider each ingredient and make an assessment as to what is really impacting our ability to trust, we can better identify what needs to shift in order for trust to be built. For example: “They have x, and not y, and I’d like to see more z.”

Think of a time in which you didn’t trust someone on your team or in your life.

  • What did they do (or not do) that contributed to your distrust?
  • What parts of the trust formula were missing from how they were showing up that contributed to the distrust?
  • How did you confront that lack of trust in the past?
  • If this is a current situation for you, what are the specific bits of feedback you might have for this person who has rattled your trust?