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Nearly twenty years ago, David Maister wrote a goldmine of a guidebook in The Trusted Advisor. I still recommend it to anyone in professional services and I'll give you a 2-minute snapshot of what he shares in his 222 pages. The big take-away, his "trust equation" (above) is a symbolic and practical representation of what can be your team's best asset or your worst liability. Calculate the "Trust Equation" for a few different people in your life by putting numbers between 1 and 10 for each of the factors, and you can get a clear picture of where trust may break down and how to increase it.

After all, what could be more important to a high performing team, or a solid client relationship, than trust? And yet, as Maister (and 20 years of our work using the equation) shows, earning (and maintaining) trust is messier than it looks. Let's take the elements of the equation in turn: Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy, and Self-orientation.


People will believe what you're saying only if you know what you're talking about. But there's more to credibility than simply knowing your professional discipline. "Credibility isn't just content expertise. It's content expertise plus 'presence' we look, act, react, and talk about our content." It's about how others perceive you. Maister goes into great detail on we can enhance our credibility and offers 11 additional tips at the end his chapter on credibility, all worth a review.


Reliablity reveals itself (or its lack) in action. Whereas credibility is represented by what you know and show (degrees awarded, projects delivered, or other provable past experience) reliability can only be demonstrated by delivering on what you promise. Being reliable means your deeds match your actions with a particular individual, team, or client. And like the old Timex® ad, where the watch "takes a licking and keeps on ticking," you can only develop reliability over a period of time.


Intimacy is where emotions most come into play, and that's why it's the trickiest, riskiest factor in earning and maintaining trust. Maister defines intimacy as "willingness to talk about difficult agendas." No one wants to be taken advantage of, most of us don't want to be or be seen as vulnerable (especially in business), and we often we think that being aloof will help us appear more professional. But sharing humor, a stroll outside, a couple hours at a sporting event or other shared interest can help create and strengthen bonds of intimacy, and that intimacy increases trust.


How much do you trust someone who 1) knows knows his or her stuff, 2) is very dependable, 3) you've spent lots of time together, and yet, who almost always seems to be putting his or her needs first? Not much, right? Turns out, professional service firms do this all the time. It's often painfully obvious that the recommendation the "professional" is making really is to the greater benefit of his or her own firm. I remember a prospect, who had contacted us regarding a potential partnership with one of their clients tell me, "Our goal is simply to extract as much revenue as we can from this client." (That ended our desire to engage the prospect, by the way.) Whenever we are thinking about ourselves, our outcomes, or investing time and energy proving that we are "right," our self-orientation is on high. And this self-orientation can destroy trust. That's why self-orientation is the denominator in Maister's Trust Equation. Whatever your numbers on Credibility, Reliability, and Intimacy, note that going from "1" (impossibly low, by the way) to "2" cuts the overall Trust score in half.

A Universal Need

What does this all mean for you, and your team? In "The Chamber of 32 Doors," a song by Genesis, the character Rael repeats the chorus, "I need someone to believe in, someone to trust." So do our teammates and our clients. If we want to be that "someone" they trust, David Maister directs the way: Increase our credibility, our reliability, and our intimacy with others, and reduce as much as we possibly can our self-orientation.

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