To trust fundamentally means to make yourself vulnerable to the actions of others. We trust because we believe they can do what we want them to do, and that they will do right by us. When we choose to trust someone, we willingly give them power over us, trusting that they will not abuse this power. Trust is a special form of dependence. It is predicated on the idea that we can be more than disappointed: we can be betrayed.

Understanding how trust works in personal relationships is, it goes without saying, important.

However, it becomes even more important—and more complex—when we talk about companies. When we interact with a company, we are also making ourselves vulnerable to it. When we buy a product or service, we trust that it will work as promised and will not harm us. When we take a job, we trust that a company will treat us fairly. When we invest in a company, we trust that they will give us truthful information to make investment decisions. As members of the public we need to trust that a company will not use its powers to cause undue harm to us.

However, our overall trust in business is low. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust barometer, business was more trusted than government, NGO’s, and the media. But 61% is hardly a stunning endorsement and 56% of respondents believe business leaders are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations. Meanwhile  65% of respondents agree CEOs should hold themselves accountable to the public and not just to the board of directors or stockholders.

Trust consists of four different elements: competence, motives, means, and impact. We may trust a company on none, some, or all of these elements.




A company’s ability to create and deliver products and/or services through a combination of process excellence, technical know-how, and managerial smarts.


A company’s intentions to do well by all the people and groups who interact with it. And, when confronted with the necessity to make painful decisions, how well a company balances the interests of different groups to cause the least amount of harm.


The fairness of a company’s processes and treatment of people in achieving its goals, when distributing rewards and pain points, and in conveying information.


The overall effect, both intended and unintended, of company actions on other people. And when the consequences are unintended, whether a company stands up and takes responsibility for them.

This framework helps explain dilemmas like why we continue to use Uber even though we’re angry about how it treats its employees and even when we have the option of downloading Lyft instead. The framework emerged from our research. It gives companies something they can manage. It makes trust actionable.

Gold puzzle piece