Justin AndersUn

19 December 2023

The Trust Ratio

All ratios are wrong, but some are useful.

I’ve recently started to track my weight, subcutaneous fat percentage, basal metabolic rate, and other body composition metrics. In my research, I quickly discovered that body mass index (BMI)—the ratio of weight to height—is a notoriously poor metric for one’s health, as it doesn’t consider factors like muscle, bone density, and fat composition.

Although I can’t rely on BMI as the single metric of my metabolic health, I still believe that useful ratios exist for other circumstances. Physical health has many quantitative metrics—such as body fat percentage and VO2 max—that we need not rely on simple ratios. But ratios can be helpful in harder-to-quantify domains, like interpersonal relationships.

Conversations, feedback, and vague concepts like “trust” may benefit from simple ratios.

The Conversation Ratio

When conversing with strangers or acquaintances, I err on the side of asking too many questions. I’d like to say this is because I’m curious, but much of this tendency arises because I’m self-conscious that what I’ll say won’t interest the other person. So, I pepper them with questions instead.

While generous on the surface, too many questions can feel like an interrogation. If one’s conversational partner is also a bit insecure, this one-sided questioning can cause discomfort. According to Ramit Sethi, a finance and psychology blogger, a helpful rule of thumb for conversations is question-question-statement.

Of course, we shouldn’t follow this too literally and become a chatbot or simply “check the box” and ask questions without listening. However, erring on the side of curiosity and humility is a good starting point. Ask twice as many questions as statements.

2:1 is a decent ratio of questions to statements.

The Feedback Ratio

Another challenging area of interpersonal relationships is sharing positive and negative feedback. With our spouses and partners, constant criticism can lead to insistent arguments. Yet, only dolling out praise to avoid conflict can lead to deep-seated resentment.

In the workplace, untrained managers gravitate toward an almost satiric approach to delivering criticism to employees: The compliment sandwich. While one good feedback, followed by criticism, followed by another praise, might feel right to the giver, the receiver can experience emotional whiplash and leave the conversation unclear of what they need to fix.

A natural affinity to symmetry may lead us to consider a balanced solution—one positive feedback per negative feedback—but this open-faced compliment sandwich isn’t much better. Psychology studies, such as that conducted by Marcial Losada in 1999, concluded that an imbalanced ratio of praise to criticism can yield the best employee performance.

The study found that 5.6 praises per every criticism is the ideal ratio for delivering feedback. Fewer than five praises can be demoralizing, but more than ten praises per criticism can have adverse effects, such as ego inflation or depriving employees of the constructive criticism needed for growth.

5:1 is a decent ratio of praise to criticism.

The Trust Ratio

Neither conversations nor feedback matter if there’s no trust.

In a world inundated with spam, scams, and identity theft, trust is the new gold.

Trust forms from a strong reputation, a strong reputation emerges from a reliable history, and a reliable history reflects one’s say-do ratio.

Our say-do ratio is how often we do what we say we’ll do. The perfect say-do ratio is 1:1, and it should be the North Star of commitment, but this is very hard for any human to uphold—those who do float above the crowd.

After many hours of research, I struggled to find a good quantification for a reasonable say-do ratio, and most writing on the topic boils down to the standard advice of “under promise and over deliver.” It’s a helpful starting point—certainly better than the alternative of “all talk and no action”—but it’s unsatisfying and doesn’t correlate to trust. For instance, if one says they can complete a task in ten hours, but it only takes one hour, they will undoubtedly have an excellent say-do ratio, but they’re sandbagging, and that habit can erode trust.

I propose a different metric: fulfilled promises to broken promises.

In my experience, even the most reliable people occasionally miss, but those slipups are rare. I’ve found that the ratio of fulfilled to broken promises is much more lopsided than that of conversations or feedback. An acceptable ratio seems to be ten fulfilled promises for every broken promise. In other words, to “undo” one slipup, one must fulfill their following ten commitments to restore trust.

10:1 is a decent ratio of fulfilled to broken promises.

While 100% fulfillment is the gold standard, to err is human, and in the words of Aesop: “After all is said and done, more is said than done.”

© 2024 Justin Anderson