Michael He

October 10, 2021

The Trust Battery

Human relationship are difficult to understand, but we can use the trust battery to understand the bigger picture.
 
What is the trust battery?

Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke uses this idea to describe work relationships at his company. 
 
When two people interact for the first time their trust battery is at 50%, which is a neutral level.  The percentage shows the current trust level between two people at a given point. Interacting with each other will either charge the battery or drain it.  A battery around 85% or 90% means the two people trust each other very much, whereas a battery around 10% means they cannot work together smoothly and will instead fight constantly. 
 
In a company setting, delivering promised results and supporting the team will charge one’s trust battery with other people. Doing the opposite will drain it. 
 
You can find analogous patterns in many types of relationships, most notably between family members, friends, romantic partners, mentors and mentees, suppliers and customers, etc.
 
The concept of trust is paradoxical at times. 

Trust is not a revolutionary concept but talking about trust is. We don’t talk about trust for two reasons. Those who talk about trust all day are sometimes untrustworthy people, for example scammers or politicians (or both, if you so inclined). We are skeptical of anyone who speaks that way. But the more applicable reason is hidden in hindsight. Why should we talk about something so “obvious”? So talking about trust is like a circular argument: we don’t talk about trust, so we don’t really know how it works; since we don’t really know how trust works, we don’t talk about it.

Trust is dependent on time, but time does not guarantee trust. Relationship building requires consistent positive interactions over time to establish trust. Reciprocations and consistency are key principles. As Tobi explains, "it takes a year of working together until you sort of understand people." That translates to tens if not hundreds of hours, which is in line with social psychology research

Where is the trust battery and how can we use it?
 
We should prioritize high trust levels with people in life, since "a low trust battery is at the core of many personal disputes at work [and in life]." So where are the trust batteries and how do we charge them?
 
The trust battery is everywhere and we can see it. It’s not an app on the phone but an intuition. We can tell the connection between people, whether they are people we know well or not. We can even see the dynamic between fictional characters. 

Throughout life, we build relationships with many people, but that comes with a price tag. A few people will take up most of our time, attention, and emotional energy at each life stage. We inevitably prioritize quality relationships. In other words, we are consciously and subconsciously optimizing our social relationships. For people we don’t interact often with, every interaction contributes a lot to the trust level. For people we are familiar with, each interaction may not contribute as much to the overall trust level, because people expect us to act consistently. Instead, anything that deviates strongly from the acceptable range will instantly ruin the trusting relationship.
 
Trust building and maintenance is therefore asymmetrical, just like how we pay attention to smartphone battery levels. 
 
If your cell phone is 80% charged, you're not worried about finding a charger. But when your phone in your pocket goes into low battery mode, you're thinking about your phone a lot. What people want to do in a company is get to the 80% or 100% level in the area that they run. You gain full autonomy this way. It’s a process that cannot be given to people by title or something like that. - Tobi Lütke
 
One of the greatest joys in life is to do what you love and be with people you love. This naturally requires you to have high trust battery levels with people around you. We love teams with high levels of trust, whether it’s from fantasy novels, business ventures, military groups, sports, or even video game characters.

Ensuring a high trust battery level with people close to us is crucial to well-being in life and something we should constantly strive towards. Strength depends on many dynamic things, but we must stay away from instant game-overs. As Warren Buffett famously says, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." Charlie Munger has a few advice that guarantee misery in life, so make sure not to ruin the trust battery with those.
 
Sadly, low trust battery levels are more like the sinking Titanic than magical turnaround wrestling matches. When the direction is wrong for a long time and inertia sets in, it is incredibly hard to turn the ship around. As the trust battery level drains lower, forgiveness and compassion may be exponentially harder to give. This is another reason to keep a decent trust battery level with people at any cost. 

Between two friends, being supportive during tough time builds more trust. John 15:13 (NKJV) reads, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends." The manifestation of this verse in real life is something that makes life worth living.

The biggest obstacle to charging one’s trust battery is ego. It is not easy to talk about anything, let alone things that elicit emotional responses. However, overcoming this barrier is essential to keep a healthy level of trust. Tobi says, "so much about working in teams is the way you communicate working together, the way you give each other feedback." We want to empower others, yet giving feedback is not easy. The trust battery idea gives us a more objective way to provide feedback without getting too personal and emotional about the good intentions.

What is important?
 
Attitude is the most important ingredient to charging the trust battery. One must acknowledge that relationships can improve and deteriorate. Only then can we be honest and figure out what the right thing is to do and do it. Keep doing things that work, but also drop anything that leads to battery drains or stagnation.  

I wish to keep writing about this topic, but alas I ran out of things to say for the time being... Let's end on a high note: The highest form which civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust.  - Charlie Munger
 
I wish you a life of high trust battery levels with everyone that matters!

P.S: decentralized organizational structure depends on high trust battery levels even more than centralized organizations, because success of decentralization depends entirely on high individual agency and realizing one's full potential. Seamless cooperation requires high trust battery charges across the board.