Can people really trust you? What makes you so sure?

You are either telling the truth or you are telling a lie. There is no middle ground.

Now that may seem too simplistic, but that’s the way most people see it.

Take employees, for example. They don’t know when a lie from the boss is so small that it’s okay. And they don’t know when a lie is so big that it’s not okay. So they conclude that all lies count and all of a boss’ lies, no matter how big or how small, destroy their trust in the boss.

And the same principle applies to everyone else in your life … your spouse, partner, kid, coworker, customer, pastor, politician, and President. If there’s any lying going on, the trust begins to disappear and with that, just about everything else of value in that relationship slips away.

So let me ask you: Can people really trust you?

Hopefully your answer is “Yes, absolutely!”

But if you ever need to build or rebuild trust with anyone, or if you need to teach someone else how to build trust, start with these tips.

► 1. Tell the truth.

It may not be comfortable. It may not make you look the best. But it’s the foundation of any trusted relationship.

I like the way one wealthy individual told the truth in the New York Times way back on February 19, 1984. He was asked how he had amassed a huge fortune years before. He said, “It was really quite simple. I bought an apple for five cents, spent the evening polishing it, and sold it the next day for ten cents. With this I bought two apples, spent the evening polishing them, and sold them for twenty cents. And so it went until I had amassed $1.60. It was then that my wife’s father died and left us a million dollars.”

He told the truth. He didn’t add a few extra details. He didn’t glamorize the process. He didn’t even “stretch” the truth for a little extra impact. He just told the plain old unvarnished truth — which is what you’ve got to tell if you aspire to be a true leader or trusted partner.

But I’ll add one guideline. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul tells us to “speak the truth in love.” In other words, tell the truth, especially the difficult truths, in a kind, respectful, inoffensive manner. He’s so right.

Truth telling never gives you the right to be harsh, cruel, and crude. That’s why I hate it when someone “tells the truth,” devastates another person, and then justifies their lousy communication behavior by saying, “I was just telling the truth.” No you weren’t. You were also denying someone’s dignity.

► 2. Admit your mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes. But what really hurts your leadership or your relationship with others is not admitting them right away. In Presidential politics, for example, it wasn’t Nixon’s thievery or Clinton’s adultery that got them in the biggest trouble. It was their repeated refusal to admit their mistakes.

When I’m coaching executives, I often give them a card that says, “Employees will forgive and forget a leader’s errors in judgment, but they will never forget his/her lack of integrity.” I suspect Nixon and Clinton never got the card.

Unfortunately, most business cultures discourage people from admitting their mistakes. They’re indirectly taught to bury their mistakes or blame someone else.

Not Katie Paine, founder and CEO of the Delahaye Group. She instituted the “Mistake of the Month Club.” She says, “Several years ago, I overslept and missed a flight to a big client meeting. I walked into my next staff meeting, plunked $50 down on the table, and said, ‘If you can top this mistake, that money is yours’.”

Katie continued, “People started to own up to mistakes and suddenly we had a flood of them. At every staff meeting since, we’ve set aside 30 minutes to write up the mistakes of the month on a whiteboard. Then we cast a vote. Since then we’ve recorded more than 2000 mistakes. Once a mistake hits the whiteboard, it tends not to happen again. It has become a bonding ritual. Once you go through it, you’re a member of the club.”

Admitting your mistakes takes guts. But it shows character and builds trust. It is a vital piece of the honesty that makes you a leader and person that can be trusted.

► 3. Keep your promises.

Avoid the temptation of merely saying whatever will make others feel good. Avoid mush language, phrases like “I’ll think about” and “I’ll get back to you” when you have no intention of doing so. Those are implied promises that people expect you to keep.

And a broken promise cuts deeply into the trust people have in you. In fact, the Center for Creative Leadership found that the number one block to a successful executive career was not following through on commitments.

By contrast, those who made it all the way to the top in their careers were those who kept their promises. They said, in effect, “I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do when I say I’m going to do it.”

► 4. Talk and walk your values.

If you’re a leader or a parent, don’t make your employees or kids read your mind. Don’t make them guess your values. Tell them how you feel and why you feel that way. And then let them see you make decisions and choose behaviors that are consistent with your spoken values.

When you walk your talk, the other folks may not always agree with you. They might not even like some of the things you say and do, but you can sure bet they will respect you.

Mother Teresa comes to mind. The whole world trusted and respected her, even people who did not agree with her theological positions. The world respected her because she made it exceedingly clear what she believed and every part of her life was consistent with those beliefs.

Could the same thing be said about you? That you walk your talk? I hope so because you’re going to see a lot of trust coming your way.