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?