Why People Don’t Trust Trust

In broad terms, what I do for a living is teach (mainly corporate) people to be trustworthy with their business partners, customers and clients.

One of the most frequent objections I get is, “But what you’re suggesting is naïve; it’s too risky, and people will take advantage of you.”
Let me explain why this is a non-sequitur at best, and flat wrong at worst. There are three mistaken assumptions in this claim:

1. Believing that trusting and being trusted are the same
2. Believing you can earn trust without risk
3. Believing that people’s primary instinct is selfishness.

Trust is not symmetrical. To be trusted by someone is not the same thing as trusting someone. When I recommend being trustworthy to my clients, I mean things like admitting when you’re wrong, not fudging your credentials, recommending competitors if they are better for the job, and generally speaking the truth about whatever is going on with you and the other person and the situation at hand.

I have never heard anyone justify lying. But I hear lots of people say they’d never recommend a competitor, or that they’d shade the truth to win a job, or that they’d never acknowledge a situation of discomfort, or call out a dysfunctional client situation. Which as far as I’m concerned means you’re not willing to tell the truth. Which is often only marginally distinct from telling a lie.
But that’s how people talk themselves into not being trusted—that is, by coming up with excuses for not telling very much truth. Which comes across to clients and partners as hiding something. Which makes them distrust you.

Most service providers over-rate credentials and a track record, and underrate the power of telling the truth—all of it. Honesty, transparency, truth-telling, full disclosure—these are the things that lay bare motives, and convince others that nothing is being hidden.

But to the one who would be trusted, these can seem risky steps to take. Admit we made a mistake? Heavens no! They might think we are incompetent; they might be upset; they might fire us; they might not pay the bill. Better to say nothing of it, try to fix things up behind the scenes, and hope they don’t notice it.  But they always notice it. And the coverup is always worse than the crime.

There is no trust without risk. Ronald Reagan’s line “trust but verify” is a rhetorical trick. Trust with verification isn’t trust–it’s more like random drug-testing, which is what happens absent trust.

The one who would be trusted is the one who takes small, initial up front risks—risks of embarrassment, rejection, inadequacy. The one who trusts is the one who generally takes the far bigger, longer-term risk—buying the product, signing the contract.

How silly, then, to risk ruining a large, long-term deal by avoiding a small, short-term deal—out of fear. Yet it happens all the time. We can’t tell them they have a problem in purchasing management—they might be offended. So we’ll just do nothing.

It’s ironic that the largest cause of unwillingness to be trustworthy via truth-telling is the belief that the other party—the one we’d like to trust us—will screw us given the chance.
It has nothing to do with whether people are “good” or “bad,” whether they are or are not out to get you. Those odds vary by industry, geography, and other conditions.

But in almost any population (all right, so maybe Wall Street might be an exception), the willingness to behave at a level of trustworthiness beyond the norm for that population will itself tend to raise the level of trusting as a response. Simply put, people respond to trustworthiness in a reciprocal manner.

If someone behaves in a more trustworthy manner than I am accustomed to—then I am more likely to trust them than I would someone else on average.

What’s so dumb about being trustworthy?


A Tool for Emotional Risk Management — Name It and Claim It

In my last post, I suggested that one of the biggest obstacles to those in the professional services was a discomfort with taking emotional risks. Since there is no trust without risk, this creates a barrier to trusted relationships.

There is a key, a technique for mitigating emotional risk; it’s called Name It and Claim It. I’ll express it grammatically, though it can’t be emphasized enough that you must say the words genuinely, with care. If you’re faking it, if you’re phony, there are no words to do the job.

Think of a big bad truth; an elephant in the room. The thing that everyone knows is true, but no one wants to talk about. Name It and Claim It is for getting those “elephants” out in the open. Because the thing about elephants is that if you don’t speak them, they take control. But if you can Name It—that is, speak the elephant in the room—then you can Claim It—you can recover control.

The elephant may be that you are nervous. Or that the other person is nervous. That you’re about to say something highly personal. Or that you’re concerned about a lack of information. Or that you are low in experience on a given issue. Or that you may not know how to phrase something. Or that others know more about a given issue.

Whatever you’re afraid of, that’s the Elephant in the Room. That’s what needs naming. So here’s the skill.
List as many caveats as are necessary to slightly overcompensate for what you’re about to say—then say it.

That’s it; though every word is important. Here are a few examples:

  • “at the risk of sounding like a broken record, being redundant over and over again, let me remind us all one more time that…”
  • “I know we’re busy here and everyone’s got a loaded agenda, and we’re all supposed to be business like, but I’ve got to tell you—I’m a little nervous.”
  • “I’ve never been in your situation, and of course you’ve seen many more of these than me, and maybe it’s presumptuous of me, but—I think if I were in your shoes that would be very upsetting to me.”
  • “Before we go too much further in the conversation, I’d like to make sure neither of us gets embarrassed by it turning out that price is either way above or way below what the other person thought, so—I’m thinking this is a low 7 digit number. Is that wildly in the same ballpark you were thinking?”
  • “I’m probably way off here, and I haven’t had my eyesight tested lately, and the light is bad, but—isn’t the emperor not wearing an clothes?”

Name It and Claim It feels risky. It is. But it is like a vaccination. A small pain now mitigates a much larger pain later. A small emotional personal risk can add huge payoff by suddenly making a big issue eaiser to talk about.

When you Name and Claim properly, the worst that can happen is that the other person validates all those fears you expressed—“yes, you really should have waited, and you’re right, it is embarrassing,” and so on. But the important truth is—you’ve spoken the thing that needs speaking. From then on, everything has changed.

Because when humans say something out loud to each other—as opposed to letting it fester unspoken within each person—a connection is made. You may continue to disagree—but sullen, resentful disagreement is far more corrosive than spoken, acknowledged disagreement. One is connection; one isn’t.

Name It and Claim It doesn’t just mitigate risk; it actually creates trust at the same time. Because it usually amounts to one person taking a personal risk in the realm of intimacy. People reciprocate. If I take a risk in front of you—honestly, sincerely—odds are you’ll respond in kind. Thus intimacy increases; thus trust increases.

Professionals need to take more personal risk. This tool can help.

Mitigating Emotional Risk

Most service professionals share a distinguishing characteristic: they over-rate content mastery and under-rate personal connection. Professionals are less comfortable operating in the purely personal realm than they are in data-based, content-driven interactions. I have observed these patterns consistently throughout my career in professional services.

Nothing is more likely to cause an accountant, lawyer, actuary or consultant to break out sweating than the need to interact improvisationally one on one with a client without a clear agenda, in an area outside their zone of competence, with a potential sale on the line.

It feels, above all else, risky. Personally risky.

If you were to infer that professionals underrate personal skills because they are uncomfortable practicing them, I wouldn’t dissuade you. Here’s more evidence.

My online Trust Quotient self-assessment quiz has over 2500 entries so far. The quiz rates your own assessment of your credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation—the key components of the Trust Equation.

For professionals so far, the highest scores are for reliability; the lowest are for intimacy.

In other words: an under-rated and critical skill in professional services—the ability to form deep personal relationships—is, by participants’ own self-ratings, their area of greatest weakness.

In the seminar work I do with professionals, this is always evident. “Oh we couldn’t say that, that would be too direct. That might offend them. The client would be embarrassed if I did that. They might feel that’s unprofessional. I wouldn’t want them to think I was too emotional. That just isn’t done. That’s too risky.”

These people are professionals at mitigating risk—financial risk, professional risk, business process risk, sales risk, legal risk. Yet when it comes to mitigating emotional risk, they are often clueless.

There is no trust without risk. But pointing that out just makes professionals burrow even further into the hole of denial, claiming that their clients are robots who don’t really want their professionals to appear human.

What they need is a simple, formulaic tool for dealing with the perceived risk of increasing intimacy with other human beings. Hey, we could all use a little of that, right?

There is precisely such a tool, and I’m going to write about it in the next blog post. It’s called Name It and Claim It. It is a simple grammatical technique. It is a meta-tool, meaning it can be applied to whatever is causing you fear. It is easy to remember, and pretty easy to use.

There is no trust without risk. This tool mitigates emotional risk. Which means you can stop shutting down trust by no longer being excessively risk-averse.

Best of all, it works. Very well. Stay tuned for details, next post.