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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

Why is it so Hard to Assess TRUSTWORTHINESS?

Trust is a two-person game. The level of trust someone has in you is the product of their trustability (their willingness to trust other people) and your trustworthiness. You can do almost nothing about the former, and everything you can do about the latter—your trustworthiness. So, the starting point in building trust in an organization, or any relationship, is to build your trustworthiness. And the first step in building your trustworthiness is to assess it. I looked up tools to assess trustworthiness, but since that trust is relative (personal and contextual), those tools won’t work. In this article, I will explain why existing off-the-shelf trustworthiness assessments are not good enough and describe how you should assess trust.

Trust is Relative

Off-the-shelf assessment tools typically focus on the absolute and universal trust components, such as telling the truth. They are not suitable for assessing personality differences that would cause distrust, even if each personality characteristic is not good (or bad). For example, people who stress over deadlines don’t trust procrastinators, and people who avoid risk don’t typically trust risk-takers. The same behavior (neither good nor bad) that would cause one person to trust you could cause another person to distrust you, and standard trustworthiness assessments could not address that relativity.

Trust is Contextual

Competence is a trust component in almost every trustworthiness model. However, assessing competence must be done in the context of a person's role in the relationship. You assess pilots’ competence through the number of hours they have flying, you assess Navy pilots’ competence by the grades they get from the LSO for carrier landings, and you assess surgeons by their surgery success rate. For practicality, off-the-shelf assessments would limit the level of competence assessment to “I am competent” (or “I believe the person is competent”). They would miss the subtlety and contextual nature of competence (and other components).

Quantitative vs. Qualitative

The overwhelming majority of assessments (self-assessments, 360, and others) are quantitative. You are asked a series of questions and given multiple choices to respond, and it all adds up to a number or a set of numbers that would “grade” or “rank” a certain aspect of your personality. A few examples include Myers Briggs (MBTI), DiSC, Enneagram, etc. Self-assessments cannot address the relative and personal nature of trustworthiness. For that, you must ask the person you want (or need) to be trusted by. However, a simple multiple-choice assessment tool cannot address the complexity and contextual nature of trustworthiness.

Research follows two major methodologies at the highest level: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative research would typically use survey instruments much like the ones listed above. Qualitative research, on the other hand, is more exploratory and will include interviews, open-ended questions, and further digging into answers to better understand the subtlety of the subject of research. It is also much harder to conduct, as you will see in the next section, cannot be done automatically by an online tool, will require a person to conduct the interview, and will therefore cost more.

However, with trust being the foundation of every relationship and having such a huge impact on employees and organizations, isn’t it worth it?

How should you measure trustworthiness?

  • Assuming you have a team of 8 members. Every relationship is different, and trust is asymmetrical, so you have 56 (8 x 7) trusting relationships to assess. Given the effort required to assess a single relationship, I recommend focusing the assessment on critical dependencies. In other words, assess the trustworthiness of one team member by interviewing another team member who critically depends on the trustworthiness of the first member. This would reduce the effort dramatically and make it manageable.

  • If you interview too many people who depend on the first one, you might “average out” issues that need to be addressed because different people see your assessment subject differently. So, focus on the critical dependencies.

  • Given the relative and personal nature of trustworthiness, it should not be self-assessed, as it is hard, if not impossible, to see yourself and your behaviors through other people’s eyes without asking them. The best is to have someone either objective or in a position of helping organizational culture (such as the HR manager) conduct the interviews, thus allowing team members to describe other members and their trustworthiness components openly. Assuring anonymity could help.

  • Use the 6 components of the trustworthiness model (competence, personality compatibility, symmetry/fairness, positivity, time, and intimacy) as interview categories, and use prompts to probe into each. However, conduct a qualitative, open-ended interview to “peel the onion” and get insight along the lines of the different components. For example, when asking about competence, start with a question such as, “what would you consider the most important competence element in [subject name]’s role?” Follow it with, “how would you describe the best possible performance in that element?” and “how would you describe the worst possible performance in that element?” Finally, ask, “if the best performance is a 10, and the worst performance is a 0, how would you rate [subject name]’s performance in this element?”

  • You could use additional, more traditional assessment tools, such as MBTI, DiSC, etc., to help determine personality compatibility.

  • Use your judgment to determine the most significant issues in holding your assessment subject back from being more trusted by the person you are interviewing.

As you can see, due to the relative and contextual nature of trust and trustworthiness, the standard, off-the-shelf self-assessment methodology will not be able to accurately identify trustworthiness issues and, therefore, should be replaced with qualitative assessments done by an appropriately trained professional.


Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop that helps build trust in organizations.

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