Five Misconceptions about Trust in Business: Part 2

In this blog series, we explore five of the most common misconceptions about trust that, while they are widely-held, are powerful inhibitors to creating real trust:

  1. Trust has to be earned
  2. Trust takes time to grow and is quickly lost
  3. Clients just want you to solve their problem
  4. Clients will trust you if you give good advice
  5. Having the right answer is critical


Trust takes a long time to build, and only a few moments to be destroyed. That has to be one of the greatest trust platitudes, and it is as wrong as it is commonly believed.

Trust takes a long time to build? Not necessarily, in fact frequently not.

Trust takes only a few moments to be destroyed? Even less true.

The Truth

Of course, platitudes don’t achieve that status out of thin air. There’s usually something to them, and of course there’s something here too.

Let’s start with the first part: trust takes time. As we explored in Part 1 of this blog, most of the time we start off even new relationships with at least a limited amount of trust. But there are two points to consider when examining how long trust takes to build: the trustworthiness of the person seeking to be trusted, and the propensity to trust of the person from whom we are seeking trust.

The Trust Equation breaks down trustworthiness into four discrete factors: Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy, and Self-orientation. Of these, Reliability is the only factor that requires the passage of time to be evaluated: you need to set an expectation, then follow through on it. And even then, it’s really more about the number and consistency of interactions than the amount of elapsed time.

The other element is what social scientists and trust academics call “generalized” trust—the propensity to believe well of the motives of strangers, and to be generally optimistic about the future. That one, it turns out, can take ages to turn around—negatively or positively. As Dr. Eric Uslaner points out, generalized trust is installed early, and usually remains stable throughout our lives.

So, does trust take time or not? The answer is, “it depends.” And what it depends on is the type of trust we’re talking about. Let’s break it down:

Now let’s look at the second part: trust is quickly lost. Most relationships, like most emotions, take roughly as long to get over as they took to develop. Marriages or friendships don’t end overnight. There may be a flash point, a straw that breaks the camel’s back. But we usually give people we trust the benefit of the doubt. We don’t dump them abruptly the first time things get difficult.

Most examples of “trust lost quickly” turn out to be either just the last drip in a long series of drips eroding trust, or a delusion about trust’s existence in the first place (you don’t “violate the trust” of a subscriber to your email list by sending them a worthless referral; the relationship you have with a name on your email list may be many things, but “trust-based” is probably a stretch).

Trust formed quickly can be lost quickly; trust formed at a shallow level can be lost at the same level. But trust formed deeply takes deeper violations, or a longer time, to be lost.

But, you might say, so what?  Why is that harmful? What’s the big deal?

The Harm

If you believe that trust takes a long time to build, then you likely believe that it also takes sustained effort, and that there are limited opportunities to build trust when you have limited time. You are inclined to focus only on those things that bring immediate gratification, like solving the problem or delivering the solution (Credibility and Reliability, which are shallow forms of trust). You are less likely to be vulnerable and take risks to connect at a human level, and less likely to set aside your own goals (Intimacy and Self-orientation, which create deeper personal trust).

If you believe that trust can be lost in a moment, then you likely believe you must be cautious and careful about protecting it. You are likely to think about trust as a precious resource to be guarded against being tarnished. You are inclined to institute rules and procedures to protect it and to give cautionary lectures about the risk of losing trust.

These beliefs are self-defeating. Why would you expend energy on something for which you are not likely to see results quickly, or at all? Or that you could lose in just a moment?

And they lead to precisely the kinds of behavior that result in trust lost.

Trust, at a personal level, is like love and hate: you tend to get back what you put out. You empower what you fear. Those afraid of getting burned are the most likely to get burned. Fear of trust not only doesn’t save trust – it actually causes low trust.

Trust is a Muscle

Thinking of trust as something that takes a long time to build makes you unwilling to invest in it, and thinking of trust as something you can lose in a minute makes you cautious and unlikely to take risks. But the absence of risk is what starves trust. There simply is no trust without risk – that’s why they call it trust.

If your people aren’t empowered, if they’re always afraid of being second-guessed or saying the wrong thing, then they will always operate from fear and never take a risk – and as a result, will never be trusted.

Trust is a muscle – it atrophies without use. And the repetition of the mantra “trust takes time to build and can be lost in a moment” just tells people not to use it.

Turns out the stupidest trust is the trust you never engaged in because you were unwilling. The smartest trust is the trust you create by taking a risk.

UP NEXT – Come back tomorrow to read about the third misconception: Clients just want you to solve their problem.


Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

Five Misconceptions about Trust in Business: Part 1

There are many misconceptions about trust that pervade how we think about professional relationships. While most seem harmless (think about Ronald Reagan’s admonition to trust, but verify), unless they are examined and dispelled, they will impede real trust.

This blog series describes five of the most common – and most dangerous – misconceptions about trust:

  1. Trust must be earned
  2. Trust takes time to build and is quickly lost
  3. Clients just want you to solve their problem
  4. Clients will trust you if you give good advice
  5. Having the right answer is critical


I often start workshops by asking if the people there trust me, and why. One reason I commonly hear from those who don’t is, “Trust is earned.” While that mindset is pervasive, it’s an unfounded misconception that often hinders relationships before they start.

Quite simply, withholding all trust until it’s “earned” would make it nearly impossible to collaborate or have meaningful transactions with others. A complete lack of trust impedes communication and progress.

The reality is that in most business situations, we extend at least some level of trust from the very first interaction with someone new. Trust is the default that allows any productive conversation or collaboration to occur.

Trust is not “All-or-Nothing”

Once I’ve introduced myself, at least a few more people will say they trust me, but in a limited capacity based on my role as a workshop facilitator.

Trust is contextual – it can exist in varying degrees for different situations or aspects of a relationship. In other words, I trust the UPS driver to deliver my packages, but not to babysit my grandchildren.

Of course, egregious violations like unethical conduct or repeated untrustworthiness can sever trust completely. But more often, trust exists even if it’s fragile at first. The opportunity is to nurture it into something more resilient.

The Trust Is Already There – Now Build Upon It

To be trusted, you must also be willing to trust. Extending trust upfront creates an environment for more open communication and creates opportunity for personal connection – the foundation for any trusted advisor relationship. Withholding trust, meanwhile, can spark defensive tendencies and strain the relationship before it starts.

The key is to approach new relationships not from a deficit requiring trust to be painstakingly earned, but instead looking to build upon and validate the trust that already exists. It’s a mindset shift, but one that facilitates much stronger collaboration and relationships.

Finally, remember that many people are willing to trust others until proven untrustworthy, rather than requiring trust to be earned first. Taking the risk of granting trust first demonstrates vulnerability and opens the door for the other person to reciprocate and validate that trust.

UP NEXT – Come back tomorrow to read about the second misconception: Trust takes time to build and is quickly lost.

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

The Strengths Trap: How Overplaying Your Strengths Harms Trust (Part II)

Part I of this blog described how over-emphasizing the trust-building factors in the Trust Equation without balancing your self-orientation can actually hurt your trustworthiness. It also identified many internal and external triggers that might increase self-orientation.

In this post, we explore specific actions you can take to avoid over-playing your strengths.

The Goldilocks Effect

Source: “Stop Overdoing Your Strengths,” Kaplan and Kaiser, HBR Magazine, February 2009

In a Harvard Business Review article, “Stop Overdoing Your Strengths” (HBR Magazine, February 2009), authors Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser explored the impact of the leadership trait forcefulness on leaders’ overall effectiveness.

The plotted results of their research shows that overplaying a strength can be just as dangerous as underplaying it.

When it comes to being trustworthy, optimizing the trust equation may seem akin to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: what’s too little, what’s too much, and what’s just right?

Self-orientation is an important counterweight to overplaying our trust-building strengths.

The key is balance: being able to demonstrate your strengths while keeping your self-orientation low so your overall trustworthiness increases.

Managing Self-Orientation

Lowering self-orientation to combat over-playing our strengths starts with self-awareness, noticing when internal or external pressures trigger us to focus on ourselves. Internal pressures include things like ego, fear, complacency, and personal agendas. External pressures include things like deadlines, sales and performance targets, distractions, and issues at work or home.

The antidote to overplaying our strengths is lowering self-orientation, first by recognizing when your self-orientation is high, then shifting your focus to something other than yourself.

While it sounds simple, this takes ego strength.

Once you are aware of what triggers your self-orientation to go up, you can adapt your behavior. Here are some tips to avoid over-playing each trust-building strengths:

Counter arrogance with humility.

Humility is often interpreted as timidity, but a more appropriate interpretation is recognizing how you fit into something larger than yourself. Two ways to practice humility are:

  • Open-mindedness – hear others out fully and without judgment before proposing a solution. Respect their knowledge and contributions and consider their inputs. People will see your open-mindedness as increasing your credibility.
  • Curiosity – explore their point of view with them before offering a different perspective. A great opening phrase might be, “Help me understand where you’re coming from.”

Counter control with tolerance.

Tolerance means accepting something you don’t agree with; it also means enduring something that feels unpleasant. When we are fully committed to one particular way of doing something, it’s hard to accept – or even see – viable alternatives. Two ways to practice tolerance are:

  • Check your perspective – when you find yourself struggling because things aren’t happening the way you think they should, pause and ask yourself if your approach is the only valid one. If the overall goal is being met, even if it isn’t how you expect or want it to be, then consider changing your perspective instead of trying to change to situation.
  • Grace – give others (and yourself) grace to make mistakes, to change the plan, and to be able to achieve the goal in their own way. Trusting others requires relinquishing some control. If you never give up control to someone else, what might they infer about how much you trust them?

Counter appeasement and intrusiveness with sharing.

When our natural tendency is to create connection with others, we may push too hard for them to share with us, or we may feel pressure to agree with them (regardless of our point of view). Two ways to practice sharing are:

  • Go first To avoid appeasing: if you tend to keep quiet when you disagree with what someone says, consider sharing your point of view before others share theirs so you don’t have to worry about seeming disagreeable if your point of view differs. To avoid intrusiveness: before asking someone to share something personal, share something about yourself so they feel more comfortable sharing in return.
  • Create context – it’s easy to forget that others don’t necessarily know what we are thinking. Create context by framing your perspective or questions in a positive way, focusing on the mutual benefit to you and the other person. It will feel less threatening to you and to them.

To borrow from a famous C.S. Lewis quote on humility, low self-orientation is not thinking less of ourselves; it is thinking of ourselves less.

How will you lower your self-orientation to let your trust-building strengths shine through?

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

The Strengths Trap: How Overplaying Your Strengths Harms Trust (Part I)

Playing to our strengths can be seductive. We all want to feel we are presenting our best selves, and that naturally leads us to emphasize those things at which we excel. It’s often how we define our professional roles, our careers, even ourselves.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Some modern psychometric tools are built around the idea that individuals are more successful and fulfilled when they focus on developing their strengths rather than trying to fix weaknesses. Gallup’s CliftonStrengths©, for example, claims that, by identifying and leveraging their strengths, individuals can “enhance their performance, engagement, and overall satisfaction in various aspects of their lives.”

That may be good advice in general. But is it possible to rely too much on our strengths?

When we’re talking about building trust, the answer is a clear, “Yes.”

More Is Not Always Better

Over-emphasizing or relying too heavily on a single factor to build trust can become a liability. To understand why, we need to explore the relationship of each trust-building variable with self-orientation.

In the Trust Equation (source: The Trusted Advisor by Maister, Green, and Galford, The Free Press, 2000), the factors in the numerator (Credibility, Reliability and Intimacy) build trust, while the single factor in the denominator (Self-Orientation) inhibits or diminishes trust.

The Trust Equation: Trustworthiness equals the sum of credibility plus reliability plus intimacy, divided by self-orientation

In this equation, when numerator – the sum of the factors that build trust – increases and the denominator is constant or decreases, trustworthiness goes up.

It’s when we start to separate out the factors in the numerator that we can identify the risk. Although the Trust Equation is a heuristic and not a strict mathematical formula, we could rewrite the equation as the sum of each numerator over the single denominator:

The Trust Equation: Trustworthiness equals Credibility divided by self-orientation, plus Reliability divided by self-orientation, plus intimacy divided by self-orientation.

Simple common sense tells us that relying too heavily on a trust-building strength can backfire, with consequences for our own behavior and how others may perceive us:

  • Over-playing Credibility can lead to intellectual rigidity; others may perceive you as arrogant or closed-minded.
  • Over-playing Reliability can lead to overcontrolling; others may perceive you as domineering or overly-focused on details.
  • Over-playing Intimacy can lead to emotional exhaustion or appeasement; others may perceive you as intrusive or, at the other extreme, lacking ambition.

Why It Happens

It would seem that increasing each of the elements in the numerator would increase trust. But that only works if we lower or keep constant the denominator, self-orientation. The more we focus on our strength, the more our self-orientation increases, which diminishes the trust we are working to build.

Remember that when we have something that works well for us, it’s natural to fall back on that strength. When we’re under pressure, whether internal or external, it triggers an increase in self-orientation, which heightens the instinct to flex our strength.

The table below lists some likely internal triggers for each trust-building factor; the external factors are potential triggers regardless of the trust-building strength. The internal triggers typically fall into three categories: fear- or ego-based (concern about what they think about you), complacency (over-confidence in your strength), or achieving your agenda (getting what you want from the situation).

Common Triggers of High Self-Orientation

Self-Awareness: The Antidote to Self-Orientation

The presence of any of these triggers should be a warning sign that self-orientation might be on the rise. Once you recognize that a trigger is present, you can take action to lower your self-orientation to build trust, or at least to avoid diminishing it.

In Part II, we’ll explore what actions you can take to avoid over-playing your strengths.

Resources to Build Your Trust Skills:

Six Hacks to Get into the Trusted Advisor Mindset

In a recent TrustMatters webinar, I shared four key attributes of Trusted Advisor relationships, and six mindsets that can help you get there.

You can view this and all our free webinar recordings here. For those of you who prefer to read versus watching a recording, here’s what we discussed.

Four Attributes of Trusted Advisor Relationships

True Trusted Advisors are safe havens for tough issues – those people to whom we can turn for any challenge, professional or private, when we want guidance, support, or a sounding board. The special professional relationships Trusted Advisors form have four key attributes that distinguish them. These attributes are:

Personal. We often define our professional relationships by the roles we play: client and consultant, business partner and provider, customer and customer success advisor. Thinking about our relationships in terms of our roles creates a buffer and promotes the concept that we are working together only to fulfill a transaction. For trusted advisors, the relationship transcends the transaction. It is not a relationship between roles, but a relationship between two people. To be a Trusted Advisor, we must care about our client as a person.

Two-way. No one has the power to unilaterally create a Trusted Advisor relationship. The client must participate and reciprocate. While we can always strive to be more trustworthy, we won’t – can’t – be Trusted Advisors to all our clients. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t invest in building trust with all your clients, just that if it isn’t two-way, it’s limited.

Both Rational and Emotional. Trusted Advisor relationships go beyond the rational benefits, like solving business problems and meeting business needs, to engage on an emotional level. Empathy, the ability to recognize what someone is experiencing emotionally, is a critical element to connecting. But Trusted Advisorship also is more than deep friendship. Don’t overlook that being a Trusted Advisor means being comfortable engaging on a broad set of issues, not just those for which we’ve been hired.

Intrinsically about Perceived Risk. To quote from The Trusted Advisor, “Trust without risk is like cola without fizz; there isn’t much point to it.” The very act of trusting is taking a risk; if there were no risk, there would be no need for trust. Risk, real and perceived, varies based on the situation, but the client’s perception of their own risk may as well be the reality. Whether or not we agree with that perception, we need to acknowledge and respond in kind.

Mindset Matters

So how do we develop relationships that have these key attributes? It’s simplistic to look for tips and tricks without considering the importance of Trusted Advisor mindsets. And often, having the right mindset will help us naturally take the right action. Mindset hacks are simple things we can do to get – and stay – in the right mindset.

Here are six key Trusted Advisor mindsets, and a hack to get into each one.

Mindset #1: Focus on the other person. If we focus on the other person, everything else in the relationship will pretty much fall into place. As professionals, it would seem obvious that we would be focused on the other person. But there are a lot of impediments to other-focus. For example, we may believe that our technical capability or competency is enough, or have difficulty maintaining concentrated attention, or we’re focused on what they think about us. Maybe it’s just that we think that solving the problem is more important than understanding the problem. All of these are impediments to other focus.

The mindset hack here is to focus on the person, not the problem. Clients generally want to be understood as a precondition to having their problems solved.

Mindset #2: Self-confidence. Self-confidence is about recognizing the value that you bring to the relationship, beyond technical expertise or the results of a particular transaction. The biggest impediment to self-confidence is fear; that we’re wrong, that they won’t think we’re smart or competent, or like or respect us. So we push conversations to our expertise, to where we’re comfortable. With self-confidence, you can let the conversation go where it naturally will, knowing you can meet the client where they are.

The mindset hack for self-confidence is to ask yourself, “What value do I bring to the relationship?” (Beyond the technical expertise to solve the challenge is that’s in front of you.)

Mindset #3: Ego strength. This sounds like a strange one for trusted advisors, where we spend so much time talking about maintaining a low self orientation. Ego strength is the ability to take yourself out of the equation and focus on the process of developing the relationship. Ego strength requires objectivity, the ability to look past ourselves and our emotions and focus on the process of building the relationship. Impediments to ego strength include a desire for recognition or an avoidance of blame; inappropriate emotional attachment to our solution, idea or perspective; and losing sight of the big picture. We let what we want to get emotionally out of a situation get in the way of the relationship.

The mindset hack for ego strength is a mantra, “It’s not about me.” If you feel yourself thinking about getting the credit, or the blame, or you find you’re tied up in something that’s emotional for you, just remind yourself that it’s not about you.

Mindset #4: Curiosity. The mindset around curiosity is this: the problem is rarely as simple as it seems at first pass. David Maister, co-author of The Trusted Advisor, points out that the problem is never what the client says it is in the first meeting. Curiosity helps us focus on what we don’t know, not just on what we do know. It enables better solutions, ensures we’re solving the right problem, and demonstrates to client that we fully understand them. Some things that get in the way of curiosity are over-confidence from past experience (you’ve seen this before and know the answer), unexplored or unrecognized assumptions, and urgency. Don’t get so caught up solving the problem that you forget to understand the problem.

The mindset hack for curiosity is one question: “What’s behind that?” It’s non-judgmental and creates an opportunity for the other person to share more before we move on to the next step in problem solving.

Mindset #5: Inclusive professionalism. This is not “inclusive” in the sense of DEI. Inclusive professionalism means working with the client, not carrying the attitude that, as the professional, I’m here to fix them or do something they are not capable of doing. Inclusive professionalism requires that we embrace the value the client contributes to do our job correctly. Some inhibitors to inclusive professionalism include fear of losing control, patronization stemming from ego, and the assumption that they offer limited value because they asked for our help. Lack of transparency can also be exclusive. Our clients are specialists and experts in their roles. We may have a different perspective or experience, but they are experts at what they do, and we need both parts, together, to succeed.

The mindset hack for inclusive professionalism is a simple statement: “We will be more successful together.” That suggests they have something to add and we have something to add, and only together can we be successful.

Mindset #6: The relationship is the goal. It’s easy to get so caught up in work we’re doing that we forget about the relationship. Relationships survive bad events. Not projects. And relationships lead to growth, not deliverables. One impediment to a relationship mindset is short term thinking. If you only focus on this project or transaction, you give up the future potential the relationship holds. Similarly, only focusing on the technical problem leaves you with nothing when the problem is solved. Another major impediment is a lack of willingness to invest emotionally, to care about our clients as human beings.

The mindset hack is very, very simple. “The relationship is more important than …” The relationship is more important than not being blamed, than defending myself, than completing this deliverable right now. If we always put the relationship first, then our behaviors will follow.

Keeping Yourself on Track

Changing your mindset takes practice and intentionality. These four questions will help you be intentional about your mindset:

  1. Who am I thinking about?
  2. What does the client feel about this?
  3. Who am I serving by my present approach?
  4. What am I afraid of here?

The next time you feel yourself slipping out of the Trusted Advisor mindsets, ask yourself these four questions to get back on track.

Content for this post sourced from The Trusted Advisor by Maister, Green, and Galford, The Free Press, 2000; and Trust-Based Selling by Charles H. Green, McGraw Hill, 2006.

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

Recovering Lost Trust May Be Simpler Than You Think

We’ve all heard it (and may have said it ourselves) many times: “Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose.” Often that statement is followed up with, “And, once it’s gone…” Even without finishing the sentence the implication is clear: once trust is lost, it’s very difficult to get back.

But is trust really as fickle as we think it is, requiring such Herculean effort to gain and maintain? And is it really so hard to recover once it’s lost?

Trust is Hard to Gain

Let’s start by exploring the idea that trust is hard to gain.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a stranger on the street trusting you to watch their beloved cat Lawrence while they vacation in Greece this month.

Before entrusting you with the wellbeing of their precious companion, they would need some reassurances. They would need to be confident that your intentions are good, that you’re able to do the job, that you actually will do the job, and that you will connect with and care for Lawerence almost as much as they do, five walks around the block each day and all.

Trust may be hard to gain quickly with Lawrence’s Greece-bound caregiver, but it’s still relatively simple to demonstrate your intentions, capability, reliability, and level of caring before they ask you to temporarily foster their feline friend.

In fact, there are several things you can do – both with cat-loving vacationers and in your professional relationships – that will accelerate trust, like focusing on the other person and listening, making it a lot easier to gain than we might think.

Trust is Easy to Lose

Next, let’s explore this concept.

Think about a few people at work whom you trust and with whom you have strong relationships. That might include your work BFF, a colleague you really admire, or someone who just gets you.

Has anyone in that group ever done anything to break your trust? Even just a little?

What about that time they said they were going to get right back to you and they didn’t? Or they’re constantly running late so you can’t trust them to join the team for lunch on time. Maybe at some point they weren’t as careful as you wanted with information you asked them not to share.

Yet you still trust them.

With most people we trust, it’s easy to forgive transgressions, especially for smaller things. We assume positive intent on their part and give them the benefit of the doubt. When they don’t get right back to us as they said, we know they probably have a good reason, and we don’t make it a big deal.

From that perspective, real trust isn’t as easy to lose as we sometimes think it is. Real trust can withstand a little testing.

Once Trust is Gone, it’s Not Coming Back

So what about those times when trust isn’t just tested, it breaks – what then? How hard is it really to recover trust once it’s lost?

It’s important to remember that all human relationships go through natural periods of rupture and repair and that no relationship, professional or personal, is going to be entirely conflict free. And that includes broken trust, whether through intentional or unintentional actions.

Furthermore, if we handle the conflict or the broken trust well, the relationship can actually come back stronger than before. This is a concept known as antifragility, an idea popularized by Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile.

Taking perhaps a little liberty in the interpretation, antifragility is the concept that systems, entities, or organisms can thrive when exposed to stress, vs. being durable or resilient (difficult to break or able to recover to their initial state). In other words, antifragile entities actually become stronger under duress.

Think about a forest after a fire: massive regrowth, new species appear, flora and fauna flourish.

What happens to muscles that have been tested and stressed through exercise? They rebuild into stronger, more capable muscles.

Broken bones generally heal stronger than the original bone.

This is antifragility.

Relationships can be antifragile, too, as they go through those natural periods of rupture and repair.

If there’s a relationship where trust is broken and you want to recover it, there are a few things you can do to build the relationship back stronger than before – or at least get it to a better place.

  1. Prioritize the relationship over your own discomfort – be willing to have the tough conversation;
  2. Listen to the other person to be sure you’ve heard their experience of the event;
  3. Acknowledge the impact of broken trust on the other person;
  4. Take responsibility, and apologize when appropriate, for your part; and
  5. Commit to preventing it in the future.

Although the myths about how difficult it is to build trust – and to recover it when it’s lost – persist, there’s really no mystery to it: lower your self orientation and focus on the other person, be willing to connect, say what needs to be said, and do what you said you would.

Recovering lost trust might be easier than you think. And the rewards are certainly worth it.

Trust-Based Resources to Maximize Your Team’s Potential:

Trusted Advisor Lawyers

In Gallup’s annual poll of Most Trusted Professions, lawyers rank 11th out of 15. In our work with clients, we often ask for unprompted answers to “which professions are least trusted?” The results reliably list car salesmen, lawyers and politicians as top choices for the bottom three. It’s also true that in our practice, lawyers generally rank low on the Trust Quotient self-assessment tool.

Given those daunting results, can lawyers legitimately aspire to being trusted advisors?

It’s a fair question, but our answer is unambiguously ‘yes.’ Not only that, but lawyers who do figure out the answer have a great competitive advantage, given the generally low bar set by their compatriots.

Structural Barriers to Trust

It’s worth noting that lawyers (and politicians) face some structural barriers to being perceived as trustworthy. In the US, the legal system by design is an adversarial system, and the first-listed ethical obligation is to advocate for one’s client (in the UK, service to the justice system gets top mention). As a lawyer friend of mine puts it, “in the law there is no truth – there is only evidence.” This is a feature, not a bug – the US system is designed to trust the system, not the lawyer. But it does mean that simple concepts like truth-telling don’t capture the whole essence of trust for lawyers.

Note: A similar structural feature applies to politicians – it is the work of politicians (at least, until recently) to seek compromise in order to further a common good. Again, simple definitions like “truth and honesty” aren’t sufficient to capture the whole story of trust.

I can’t think of a similar structural ‘excuse’ for the low trust ratings of car salesmen – they have to own their dismal ratings.

Lawyers and the Trust Equation

Notwithstanding the above, there is no reason lawyers can’t perform well on all dimensions of the Trust Equation. In my experience, all professional services suffer, more or less, from over-emphasis on the two ‘rational’ components of trustworthiness, Credibility and Reliability. But lawyers are at the extreme end of the professions in their tendency to equate trust with competence, credentials and rationality.

Again, this is not surprising; apart from physicians, lawyers must undergo far more rigorous substantive training and certification than, say, people in executive search or management consulting. Such fields attract people who are good at mastering complex material. On top of that, lawyers must be good at logical argumentation.

When a field puts inordinate emphasis on one aspect of trustworthiness, it is natural to expect people to assume that such emphasis is the key to being trusted.

Except, it isn’t.

Lessons of the Trust Quotient

The TQ (Trust Quotient), itself based on the Trust Equation, offers a quantitative indicator of trustworthiness. Our analysis of TQ data found that the “soft” skills of Intimacy and low Self-Orientation are slightly more powerful determinants of trustworthiness than are the “hard” components of Credibility and Reliability (based on a regression analysis of over 70,000 responses). But don’t take our word for it; note that the previously-mentioned Gallup poll shows nursing as the most trusted profession – for 19 years in a row. Not doctors, but nurses – a profession whose very job most foundationally rests on great skills of Intimacy and low Self-Orientation. Or, consider a classic Harvard Business Review article, Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks.

To put it delicately, few lawyers believe in their heart of hearts that soft skills are as important as hard skills. Yet legal clients are the same people who are hospital patients, and the same people who hire accountants or financial planners. The clients are all human beings, who share human traits, including a tendency to weight heavily the soft skills when it comes to choosing who to trust.

So What’s a Poor Lawyer To Do?

There are many aspects of being a trusted advisor, so it is misleading to focus on one. Nonetheless, let me take that leap, if only because this is a short blogpost.

Arguably top of the list is to be an excellent listener. Before you roll your eyes and move on, I’m talking about a particular kind of listening. It’s not about listening for data, or to prove a hypothesis or a case. Instead, it’s about listening as a form of respect. Respect, when given, produces respect in reciprocation. If I first listen to you, you are more inclined to listen to me.

Yes, clients seek us out largely for our reputation for expertise. But we all – and lawyers especially – draw the wrong conclusion from that. Once they’re found you, clients aren’t interested in you proving how smart you are, or how fast you can cut to the chase of the case at hand – that’s why they came to you in the first place.

But they won’t fully trust your advice on that basis. That trust comes from you first proving that you understand their unique story. If they believe you understand who they are and what their situation is, they then become willing to hear your advice – even if it was the same advice you expected to give them before they walked through the door, or that you routinely give to others in similar situations. They want your expertise, yes; but not until they sense that you have grasped their unique essence and circumstances.

They don’t teach this in law school. (Nor in business school, or architecture school, etc., for that matter). Yet it’s true. The key to being a trusted advisor is to earn the right to offer your expertise – a right we earn by paying attention to the individual humanity of each client, one at a time. Yes, competence and expertise matter, but not to the exclusion of the softer skills.

The good news is, it’s a lot easier to “learn” those skills; really, to recover them, because they are skills we learned in kindergarten, and have simply been mis-educated to unlearn them.

The S Trap: Is Self-orientation Destroying Your Trustworthiness?

Since The Trusted Advisor was first published in 2000, the most popular theme in the book has been the Trust Equation.

And within that equation, the factor that has stirred the most interest over the years has been the denominator, self-orientation. In the trust equation, since the S factor is in the denominator, a high level of self-orientation reduces trustworthiness. A low level of self-orientation serves to increase trustworthiness.

Self-Orientation Is About Focus

Self-orientation is essentially about our focus: is it on us or is it on them?

Our self-orientation is low (which is good) when our focus is on the other person, and it’s high (which is not good) when our focus is on us.

You’d think that, as people in professional services, we could confidently say our focus is nearly always on the client. If only that were true. High-self orientation creeps into our everyday interactions in all manner of sneaky and insidious ways.

The most obvious form of high self-orientation is when we are focused on our own goals/needs/desires above those of our client. Think of a stereotypical used-car salesman who will say anything to make the sale. Thankfully, because this form of self-orientation is so obvious, it is somewhat rare in professional services.

More common in professional services are the subtler, more insidious examples of high self-orientation: wanting to be right, wanting to be the one to solve the problem, subtly competing for attention and recognition, or wanting to be liked.

Taken to the extreme, this kind of high self-orientation can tip into self-obsession. Especially when we go into a situation anxious, or stressed, or lacking confidence, sometimes we just can’t get out of our own heads.

When we are so focused on what others think of us, there’s no space left for us to think about them.

High Self-orientation Diminishes Trust

When we are operating from high self-orientation, we do not hear others. We do not hear their questions, desires, fears, or emotions in general. The noise inside our own head drowns them out.

The psychology goes like this: if your level of self-orientation is low, you can pay attention to someone else. If you pay attention to someone, they experience that as caring. If someone thinks you care about them, they feel safe and are likely to trust you.

Conversely, if your attention is focused on yourself, others become acutely aware of it and infer that you do not care about them. Rightly or wrongly, they deem you less trustworthy.

We can test our S by asking ourselves if what we are saying or doing is truly in service to the relationship, vs. in service to ourselves.

Self-Orientation Does Not Mean Selfishness

Selfishness is zero-sum – I get what I want, and you do not – which is not the same as having high self-orientation. If you are selfish, you are probably pretty self-oriented. But you may also be highly unselfish, yet attached to the idea of others seeing you as unselfish. That is also high self-orientation.

Sometimes people equate low self-orientation with passivity or with willingness to give away business, cut price, or otherwise let the other party “win.” It means nothing of the kind.

A low self-orientation is critical to legitimate client focus. You cannot be focused on customers if you are obsessed with the activity in your own brain. Since client focus is a driver of profitability, this leads to a wonderful paradox: if you focus on achieving profitability by way of client focus, you will sub-optimize. Yet if you focus on the good of the client, rather than the funds you can extract from their accounts, you will achieve greater profitability – by treating it as a byproduct rather than as a goal.

Here’s a simple practical tool for avoiding high self-orientation: seek humility. That does not mean thinking less of yourself; it means thinking of yourself less.

What to Do When “My Client Is a Jerk”?

Let’s face it, in professional services, difficult clients come with the territory. You’ve probably encountered at least one:

  • A client who refuses to share information, explore ideas, or otherwise engage in making the project a success.
  • A client who cannot make a decision, no matter how much information and analysis you provide.
  • A client who is immobilized by fear or ignorance or office politics, who is not willing to address critical issues.
  • A client who is, well, just difficult, who always argues, or rejects your ideas, or is disrespectful to you and your team, yet who is perfectly wonderful with others.

When we deal with difficult clients, it’s easy to point the finger at them. But a deep, hard look might tell another story.

It turns out there’s a common thread among the clients that make you curse, and it has nothing to do with the clients. That common thread is you.

The Client Situation

Let’s create some perspective about the client.

Most of the people in a position to hire an outside professional are successful. They have people in their lives who love and appreciate them. A boss has likely promoted them. It is wise to assume that, even if their behavior is bad, they have some ability to get by in life. True psychotics/sociopaths are pretty rare in business.

Proclaiming your client is a jerk (even just to yourself) is a terrible problem statement. It’s highly subjective, unverifiable, and your client likely won’t agree that it is the problem. So where do you go from there?

Truly bad behavior usually comes from decent people who are stressed out, and thus not coping well. If someone is acting like a real jerk, it’s likely that they are afraid of losing something they have, or not getting what they need.

When you identify that fear, you can replace demonization with a real problem statement, which is a far more productive approach. This allows you to talk about that fear with your client and create a lasting bond that can serve you both well.

Our Own Situation

The truth about clients’ fear and bad behavior is equally true for us.

We are loaded with fear: fear of losing the sale, missing the deadline, blowing the project. But even deeper than the fear of failure is our fear of judgement. If I fail, will my boss view me as incompetent? Will my co-workers cease to value my work? Will my client think less of me?

As much as we fear being judged by others, judgment primarily resides in our own heads. We allow ourselves to be hijacked and held hostage by our own ideas of what constitutes success, based on value judgments instilled from our past.

One of the most emotionally attractive ways out of self-judgment is to blame others. “It was not my fault,” we want to say. “I’m late because of traffic,” or “that just wasn’t a realistic goal.” More to the point, we might say, “This project was doomed because I got stuck with a difficult client. If you’d had my client, you couldn’t have done much either. It wasn’t my fault – it was the client’s.”

But blame is useless, and it can all too easily become self-destructive. When blame flares up, people at first might commiserate with you, encouraging it. Then, as it metastasizes into resentment, people begin to move away from you. Misery may love company, but company doesn’t return the favor.

Blaming a client never got you the win, and it never will; but it may keep you from getting the next one. People don’t like blame-throwers. Clients especially don’t.

Recognizing When You Are to Blame  

To get to the root of the problem, we have to articulate the real problem.

The first thing to do is to notice our thoughts. Ask yourself, “What is the problem here?” If your mental snapshot answer starts with, “My client won’t…” or “My client doesn’t…” or “I can’t get my client to…” or “My client never…” then you need to step back and reframe your thinking. You are stuck in the blame game, spinning your wheels, and going nowhere.

  • A good problem statement is objective and verifiable. Changing what someone does is a lot easier than changing who someone is.
  • A good problem statement has you in it. If it’s all about the client, you are helpless to change the situation.
  • And almost always it should be a problem statement that is joint. If you and your client can’t even agree about why you’re not getting along, you’re certainly not going to make much progress on the substantive issues you want to work on.

If you have a “difficult” client, find a “we” statement you can both agree to that gets to the heart of the disagreement.

How to Fix a “Difficult” Client

Sometimes, all we need to do is jointly reframe an issue and–voila–our client no longer seems so difficult.

If that isn’t enough, and you decide the relationship is worth saving, go back to basics. Really listen. Deeply. Just for the sake of understanding. Don’t react with suggestions or action steps. Empathy and true understanding often end up being the catalysts that change everything.

But sometimes, we need to do more advanced work – on ourselves – to see what we’ve become attached to that holds us hostage. There’s a saying, “You’ll worry less about what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

Here are three ways to move beyond fear and self-judgement:

  1. Let go of your desired outcome. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a strong opinion or argue committedly for what you know is right. But we are not responsible for our client’s actions, only for informing their actions as best we can. Holding ourselves accountable for changing others is a losing proposition. Do the right thing, then detach from the results. You don’t own the outcome.
  2. Check your ego at the door. The best way to lose an argument is to try too hard to win the argument. It is not about you. The only one who thinks it is about you is you. Focus on the client, not yourself.
  3. Be curious. Is your client “difficult?” Be curious as to why. What are they afraid of? What is at stake? What is your role in the situation? What are you afraid of? What problem are you both trying to solve?

There aren’t any difficult clients. Not really. There are only relationships that aren’t working well. And nearly all of those can be fixed. But it must start with us.

The 80/20 rule for Virtual Relationships (Part IV): Double-Down and Ramp Up the Rational Trust Builders

The initial post of this blog series introduced what we called the (new) 80/20 rule for virtual relationships, warning that focusing too much on the “virtual” part of “virtual relationships” could lead to missed opportunities and damaging long-term consequences.

In that post, we pointed out that relationship-building and selling aren’t really different these days, in spite of what people are trying to tell you, and in spite of what your own fears are whispering—or maybe shouting—in your ear.

Using the trust equation as a framework, the second and third posts addressed the more emotional trust factors, self-orientation and intimacy.

In this final post, we invite you to consider how you might double down on your relationship EQ and ramp up your virtual IQ on the rational side of building trust – Reliability and Credibility – to strengthen your bonds with clients and colleagues when you can’t be together in person.


It does not diminish the importance of reliability to say that it is the aspect of trust at which most professionals excel. This is the factor most likely to be done well by you (and your competitors). It is also the on factor of trust that requires time.

Judgments on reliability are strongly affected, if not determined, by the number of times the client has interacted with you. We tend to trust the people we know well, and assign less trustworthiness to those with whom we have not interacted. After Intimacy, Reliability is the second most powerful trust builder.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Make small promises. You don’t have to wait for a big “thing” to be delivered to flex your strong reliability muscles. Amp up the number of small promises you make. Give others more data points to assess your consistency/predictability by creating bite-sized “deliverables,” then consistently follow through.
  • When you miss a deadline or an expectation (and you will), say something about it ASAP. Clean up any residual messes and re-promise. Do this even for things that may seem small or inconsequential.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Communicate more, and more often. Absent a crisis, reliability is table stakes, and generally over-emphasized by professionals at the expense of other variables. During a crisis, its relative importance increases because of our basic human need for predictability. Consider how you might regularly communicate what you know about a situation, even if it’s little or nothing—the “regularly” is actually more important than the content of your message.


Credibility isn’t just providing expert content. It’s expert content in conjunction with “presence,” which refers to how we look, act, and present our content.

Credibility is also about honesty and candor—saying what needs to be said, in spite of how awkward or uncomfortable it may feel.

Double down on time-tested relationship principles (80%)

  • Be bold with your point of view. Initiate conversations, post opinions, publish articles. The “advisor” part of “trusted advisor” is just as important as the “trusted” part. Have the courage to put a stake in the ground. If not now, when?
  • Express passion for your work. Show more than just professionalism; show your genuine enthusiasm for what you do, and for what your clients do. Passion is something that everyone can benefit from expressing more, but it can be especially uplifting and impactful during a challenging time.
  • Be real about your limitations and errors. For example, be willing to say, “I don’t know,” straightforwardly and with a blend of confidence and humility. You’ll build credibility through honesty. And therein lies the plot twist/paradox: when you’re OK to admit what might be perceived as weakness, people see your strength.

Ramp up your virtual best practices (20%)

  • Dial down the amount of content. The tendency to over-pack conversations and presentations is more damaging now that we’re all perpetually tired from having to engage in “constant gaze.” Think and apply “less is more” when it comes to content and give people more time to digest it and react to it.

Many professionals believe that being credible and reliable is enough to form strong trust relationships. While these two factors often provide the foundation for trust, they are only part of what forms the everlasting client bonds and deep, unshakable loyalty that come with true trusted advisorship.

Winning trust requires that you do well on all four trust dimensions (in the client’s eyes).