The Brilliant Trust Battery

The dynamics with a trust battery in between

I recently learned a concept called the “trust battery”, which is widely used at Shopify, a Canadian e-commerce company, to refer to the trust level between two people. I don’t know whether CEO Tobi Lütke invented this brilliant concept, but the concept itself is pretty simple. The so-called “trust battery” is “charged at 50 percent when you are first hired. And then every time you work with someone at the company, the trust battery between the two of you is either charged or discharged, based on things like whether you deliver on what you promise.” Basically positive interactions charge the trust battery and negative ones drain the battery.

Why is this concept brilliant? Because it helps people to talk about trust in a transparent and comfortable way. Imagine you want to discuss a trust issue with your coworker without leveraging this metaphor. You gather your courage, try your best to be open and respectful at the same time, and apply the “being tentative” technique from Crucial Conversations: “I would like to talk about the trust issue between us,” you start, “I have a feeling that you don’t trust me”, or “I am not sure if we trust each other.” Not too bad, but it can still come across as blaming or criticizing, not surprisingly because we are talking about mistrust between two people who are directly attached to the equation here. The following picture shows the dynamic using my favorite movie characters.

A typical dynamic where there is mistrust

With the help of the trust battery, a third-party object that can magically feed off the level of trust between two people, the direct tension link between the two people in the equation is removed. It is no longer about “you” versus “me”. Because a lifeless conceptual object is not something we blame or criticize, it helps to detach the emotion from the conversation. If the battery is low, both parties contribute to the reading. So the dynamic changes from the picture above to the picture in the header of this note. Try this phrasing next time, “I have a feeling that our trust battery is running flat, and I would like to discuss how we can recharge it.”

The other reason why this concept is brilliant is because the trust battery not only helps us to think about trust levels, but also the speeds at which those levels are draining or charging. When the trust battery reserve is high, small bumps only drain the battery slowly because we are more forgiving. However, when the trust battery reserve is low, we need to be very careful as it can drain very fast on any misstep. Lastly, the battery drains over time on its own if we leave it idle. We need to continue nurturing the relationship even when there is no immediate collaboration going on.

People who have read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People might recall the concept of emotional bank account which bears some resemblance to trust battery. Indeed! They are both forms of a reserve. However, emotional bank account is from one’s own perspective in that you own your account and your counterpart owns hers, while trust battery is shared. Therefore, it is easier to refer to trust battery than to emotional bank account when discussing the trust issue with your counterpart.

That’s it. The trust battery — a simple and powerful concept. Use it next time.

References

An engineering director who loves traveling, reading, and writing down his reflections on management, life, and culture. Writing is leading.