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How To Build Trustworthy Organizations & Products

Round Editorial

Trust is essential to building any successful organization or product, but it is often misunderstood or even missing. Trust expert Rachel Botsman explains why.

Trust is essential to building any successful organization or product, but it is often misunderstood or even missing. Trust expert and University of Oxford lecturer Rachel Botsman explains why.

Trust is something we all know and feel, yet defining it can be extremely difficult. As part of our RoundAbout event series, Rachel Botsman, a trust expert and lecturer at the University of Oxford, spoke with Co-Founder and CEO Ryan Fuller on how trust shapes both organizations and leaders – as well as what can happen when it’s absent or misguided. Botsman shared how we can architect trustworthy organizations that scale and thrive to help cultivate the next generation of trustworthy leaders to run them. Here are five key takeaways from the conversation:

1. The way an organization and a user perceive trust is often very different

Asking someone to make a change requires them to take a leap of faith into the unknown.

Whether asking a user to try a new feature on their favorite website or sign up for a new product, context is key. It’s important to accurately measure the trust leap someone is being asked to take and to understand that what seems small to a company, like moving from paper to digital banking, can feel significantly bigger to the person or group on the other side.

Regardless of the ask, changing a behavior requires people to move from a place of familiarity and safety (where most people love to be) to the unknown and uncertain.

Imagine being an entrepreneur, designer, or product leader…

Remembering the context for the user can be especially important for new product launches and innovations that may throw users into a “sea of uncertainty.”

2. Organizations should “design” for trust

Putting trust within a design framework enables organizations to bring trust into the building of a product or service. Rachel provided a framework for organizations to use to build trust into product and services from the beginning.

First, consider the idea: do users understand what companies are building, what role it’s going to play, and the benefit it’s going to bring? If not, it creates a trust gap. Ensuring users get context and understand an organization’s new ideas is crucial bridging that gap.

Second, and increasingly important, is the platform. Do users understand the product? Do they trust the technology (e.g. the systems, payments, verification, security, etc.) and the way an organization is presenting itself as a consumer brand?

Finally, it’s crucial to design for people. Organizations must understand who they’re actually designing for (e.g. users, regulators, etc.) and ask the questions to better understand what the barriers for trusting them might be. Ultimately, an organization needs to understand who needs to trust it – and what it will take to do so.

3. The idea of “building” trust is problematic

Organizations often speak about “building” trust with stakeholders, which implies that achieving a trusting relationship is something that organizations can work up to, step by step. However, framing trust this may not be quite right.

Thinking about building trust implies that an organization has the “a power over way of looking at trust. Like if I do these things. You will trust me”. This one-sided approach is misguided.

Instead, pivot to the idea that trust must be “earned.” Trust needs to be continuously obtained, as part of an ongoing process. “It’s something that we have to continuously think about, even in relationships that are really established. Sometimes trust wobbles, and you have to think about, ‘how do I have to earn that trust back?’”

Otherwise, it is easy to get caught in the illusion that one has more control over the trust dynamic than what actually exists.

4. Transparency is not the essence of trust

Many companies lean into transparency to gain client trust. But transparency doesn’t always equal more trust – and can even backfire, causing organizations to become reactively opaque.

The “biggest misconception” in sectors where there can be trust issues – such as tech, financial services, and pharma – is that transparency is a cure-all, Botsman says. Even when organizations have put in place transparency policies, they haven’t moved the needle with clients and users – especially when it’s clear the intention behind that transparency was purely for reputational reasons. In some instances, the more organizations share, the more people ask questions about what they’re hiding.

By using transparency as a tool – it becomes an end state and a goal, instead of a reactive imperative.

5. Trustworthiness is a measure of whether one is both capable and has character

Trustworthiness may seem elusive, but it actually encompasses two core traits: capability and character.

Evaluating capability is based on whether a leader or organization is competent, reliable, dependable, and can solve problems. Displaying capability means showing that a person or company has the skills, knowledge, time, and resources to do what it says it’ll do – and do it well. This also means being honest when falling short.

Just as important is evaluating the character, which enables people to trust a leader or organization based on the the intentions, motives, and alignment. Botsman believes integrity is paramount in building trustworthiness.

Ultimately, moving one’s understanding of trust away from a transactional, one-dimensional state, and toward a constantly evolving process – and responsibility – is key to building the organization you want to have, and being the leader you want to be.

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