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Building trust in your business

By Jonathan Tallant, Professor of philosophy, University of Nottingham

It’s widely acknowledged that trust is hugely important for businesses. This seems to hold for companies large and small, across all sectors. What is less clear, and not well understood, are the basic differences between trust and distrust and how these can be gained or lost. 

The philosophy of trust, my area of expertise, can help business owners here. Philosophers aim to reflect back to us, with greater clarity, concepts we deal with every day. These include notions that involve different types of trust: the difference between trust and distrust, and the difference between trust and other related concepts, such as reliance and confidence. 

There are at least two ways that we use the word ‘trust’. For example, I might say ‘I trust your company to deliver on time’. But I mean something rather different to when I say (about an IT server) ‘I trust it to store the data’. This difference between trust and mere reliance is normally taken to turn on some moral considerations. 

It would be quite wrong to suggest that a server has done something morally troubling if it fails to retain my data. It would be reasonable to suggest that a company has done something morally troubling (breaking my trust) in not delivering on time. So, although we may use the same word (‘trust’) in both contexts, there is a difference between cases of trust that invoke a moral notion and those that don’t.

A way to capture this difference is to treat trusting a person or company to perform an action as the combination of the belief that they ought to perform that action and relying on them to do so. Thus, reliance matters to trust, but trust goes further; it’s a matter of relying on another party to do something for moral reasons.

We should also be clear that there is a difference between being trustworthy and being trusted to perform in some particular way. Even in the aftermath of the financial crisis when financial institutions were seen as fundamentally untrustworthy, they were still trusted to carry out mundane, everyday transactions, and maintained their place in everyday life. While we may want to be trustworthy, it’s vital to be trusted.

Any SME will have a number of different parties with whom they interact and want to build trust: clients, advisors and staff being the three main groups. Here are some practical tips on how to establish trust in your business:

Tell staff their responsibilities

According to research, one reason that employees will choose to work at an SME is to be trusted to complete work with less oversight than they might be permitted at a larger firm. Communicate clearly the scope and goals of a task and make it clear to staff that they are being trusted to fulfil their responsibilities. 

Create a set of moral values

Clearly communicating a set of governing moral values is important to building trust. A great example of this kind of thing is the bank Monzo, which disclose not only their approach to writing, but also a commitment to transparency and responsibility.

Put it into practice

Acting in accordance with those values is crucial to the formation of trust. Again, Monzo is a good example. In 2018 there was a security breach associated with Ticketmaster. Monzo responded, and in fact drew the breach to Ticketmaster’s attention. At all times, Monzo came across as striving for transparency and honesty. As a precaution, they replaced a large number of cards, and came out of the situation looking like a company which puts customer interest first.

Focus on your core business

Trust is often domain-specific; a company trusted to perform one function need not be trusted to perform others. I might trust Kellogg’s to make my breakfast cereal, but I probably wouldn’t trust them to invest my money. Frame communications and strategies accordingly. Keep them targeted and focused on core business. 

Interact face-to-face

Because trust is primarily an interpersonal attitude, it is optimally brought about through interpersonal interaction. If you wish a partner to trust you and your business, there is no substitute for face-time.