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?


5 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:


    HI, Charlie,


    You ask, “What’s so dumb about being trustworthy?” I don’t think it’s so much about being “dumb” to the notion. I think it’s more about feeling safe and secure with trust — a very real challenge for many.


    The workplace is but one corner of a larger painting. Most folks don’t learn to trust, or not trust, from their workplace experiences. They learned to trust or not trust long before — the larger painting.


    For one example, many children learn at a very young age not to trust strangers, for a number of reasons. This kind of childhood indoctrination is then carried into adulthood. Adults keep this same attitude, assumption, belief, etc. unless they have deliberately made a conscious effort to change their perceptions or attitudes. 


    Lack of trust equates to fear — and so the fear induces folks to lie, cheat, steal, and not trust. Many folks live with this tension and anxiety in their business environment.


    When we don’t trust, we, often unconsciously resist the urge of our Inner, Deeper, Authentic Self to trust. It’s like “I want to but I just can’t, or won’t.” — without ever exploring the “can’t” or “won’t” piece. Not trusting is a habit.


    So, rather than explore our deeper nature and essence that is trusting, we allow our ego, personality, and conditioning to drive — so, I don’t, won’t or can’t trust.


    So, our deeper core value (trust) is morphed by self-absorption and self-interest. Healthy relationships are trumped by the dollar and the sale. Quantity is more important than quality. In a word — deception. We lie. We don’t trust. Our ego has us believe trust is foolish.


    And, in childhood, this may have been the truth. We learned not to trust our primary caregivers, or extended family members, or friends, or teachers or clergy, or folks in our first "love" relationships


    Maybe folks did not keep their promises to us, or their commitments, or even betrayed us in some way, shape or form and so we learned that trust did not result in safety, or love, or recognition or approval or security, but rather, just the opposite, in harm, threat, betrayal or danger.


    So, in the business world, or relationship world, our sports world, or other world of life, a lack of trust feels that what is being experienced is dangerous, threatening, bad, possibly harmful or something to be avoided.


    Trust can only exist to the extent that fear is absent — so the deal is to be curious about, and explore the fear that’s underneath, the lack of trust. If one chooses not to deal with their inner fear, then trust cannot be enabled. What are one’s blockages to trust (i.e., one’s fears)? What stories do we tell others, and ourselves, that justify and rationalize our mistrust?


    You say, “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.”


    This is a projection that we put on to others in order to feel safe and secure. It might be helpful to explore where we first learned to do this and why we obsess about finding situations where we can prove our projection to be “the truth”…… rather than to take the risk and actually be trusting.


    (if one is so inclined and has the time, I have a piece about "lying at work" here: (http://www.spiritheart.net/media/Lying_at_Work.pdf

    Sorry for the formatting issues…not sure how that happens.

  2. Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan
    Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan says:

    >> 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.

    I think in consulting assignments it’s the other way round. Yes, the person who trusts (client) can lose some money. Not so much because I believe it makes sense to start working with a new advisor on a small scale not on a multi-year multi-million contract. 

    So, the client may lose, let’s say, $50,000 and the time. But money can be recovered from other sources. It’s frustrating but not the end of the world.

    However, what will the advisor lose through the ensuing lawsuit and media frenzy to his mischief? Basically everything. He can as well go and hang himself on the first cherry tree for life for him as an advisor is pretty much over.

    For instance, for Arthur Andersen, some of the most fatal wounds were inflicted by the media.

    What do you think?

  3. Dawn Rivers Baker
    Dawn Rivers Baker says:

    I don’t wish you the least ill-fortune, Charles, but I find it a sad statement on the state of humanity that you are actually able to make a living training corporate types to be trustworthy.

    It also makes me a bit curious about these people’s personal relationships.

    It seems to me that the decision to be a trustworthy human being (in all contexts) is such a fundamental thing that the idea of saving it for or excluding it from just one facet of your life — your job — is unlikely.

    (Although the notion that people might elect to be trustworthy in their personal relationships but not in their business relationships also seems to me to be a good argument in favor of promoting a more holistic approach to life in general.)

    In the end, it is interesting that people so often assume that being trustworthy requires that one must automatically trust the other person involved.  It has always been my experience that the ability to behave in a trustworthy manner is made easier by the degree of trust I have in myself. If I believe in my own competence, then I have no reason to pretend I never make mistakes. If I believe in my own intelligence, then I have no need to pretend I know everything.

    And in the unlikely event that my own trustworthiness might allow someone to take advantage of me in some way, if I believe in the underlying philosophical basis for being trustworthy — openness, transparency, honesty — then I don’t worry about being harmed by it.

    Ultimately, you know, honesty is more than just the choice of a good person. It’s a kind of shield. Being honest can protect you from all kinds of nastiness because it takes away a lot of the weapons people might be able to use to make you look bad or make you appear less competent than you are.

    Perhaps it is naive of me, but I have always thought that being trustworthy gives other people less ammunition to crew you over, not more.

  4. theLight
    theLight says:

    Every significant dynamic of the human species is about trust, or lack thereof. Fear, morality, ethics, methodologies for decision-making or management or leadership all owe their core definitions and philosophies to the likelihood, legitimacy, and risk of trusting or being trusted. 

    I try to be honest all the time at work, even to a fault. When mistakes, intentions and even personal issues, whether expected or unwanted or unwarranted, disrupt my job or someone else’s, I am completely open about it. Responsibility and accountability are both firmly rooted in Trust. Without it, and there are so many people who purposefully avoid honesty and trustworthiness in either direction, the world is cruel and distasteful –  and things get done poorly or not at all. Without trust money, decisions, tasks, projects and relationships fail or never have a chance to be healthy.  

    I say its worth the risk of being taken advantage of. And its happened to me more than I’d like to admit. You can still protect yourself, more and more as you learn to anticipate the consequences and evaluate the kinds of people you encounter. Trust makes the world such a better place to live and work. As the population grows and entitlement becomes more prevalent, I do fear that trust will be eradicated all together. But that’s just the point. I have cautious optimism that the further we plummet as a society, as a world, into a black hole of distrust, the closer we are to the realization that the truth will set us all free. 


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