Who You Gonna Trust?

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.” George Macdonald

During the 1980’s our nation was chanting the “Ghostbusters” theme song. Almost everyone was wondering, “Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!”

In the 21st century, we’re faced with a much more serious question. We’re forced to ask, “Who you gonna trust?”

In fact most news stories are variations of the same theme — trust gone awry. On a national level, we see a judicial system that doesn’t seem to be in step with the people; politicians who say just about anything to get elected, and advertisers who make false claims. On a professional level, we heard business consultants say downsizing and re-engineering was the way to go, then later admit in the “Wall Street Journal” they were wrong. On a personal level, we feel the impact of broken relationships more than ever before.

If we’re going to re-energize our country, re-energize our companies, and re-energize our relationships, we need to re-build our trust. It’s our trust … or lack of it … that determines the strength of our motivation and the depth of our commitment.

There are five principles that we have to follow if we’re going to build and maintain the trust. And we’ve got to follow all the principles all the time. It won’t work if we just follow some of the principles some of the time.

=> 1. Presumption

We need to start by presuming we can trust the other person. We need to take that leap of faith.

It’s like the mother who admonishes her child, “How many times have I told you? You can’t go in the water until you learn to swim.” Well, you can’t learn to swim if you don’t go in the water, and you can’t learn to trust without trusting.

Or as Paul Lee Tan would say, trust starts by getting in the wheelbarrow. Perhaps you remember the story. It was in 1860 that a huge crowd had gathered to watch the famous tightrope walker Blondin cross Niagara Falls. He crossed it numerous times — a 1,000-foot trip 160 feet above the raging waters. He not only walked across it; he also pushed a wheelbarrow across it.

One little boy just stared in amazement. So after completing a crossing, Blondin looked at the little boy and said, “Do you believe I could take a person across in the wheelbarrow without falling?”

“Yes, sir. I really do.” said the boy.

“Well then, get in, son.” Blondin replied.

You see … trust starts with a belief in the other person. It doesn’t start with suspicion and judgment. When I was speaking with legendary basketball coach John Wooden, he reaffirmed that point. Wooden said, “It is better to trust and be disappointed occasionally than to distrust and be miserable all the time.”

The presumption of trust leads to the second principle.

=> 2. Openness

We need to be completely open. No surprises. No secrets. No strategic, piecemeal bits of information.

Quite simply, we can trust a person if we know what he thinks, how he feels, and where he plans to go. In fact, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asked 50,000 employees to rank ten factors that influenced morale. Those employees said the second most important thing was keeping them fully informed.

Unfortunately, many companies fall short of the ideal. I remember speaking to a group of employees who came to my seminar filled with anger. They had just read in the newspaper that one-third of their jobs would be eliminated in the next three months, and that was the first time they’d ever heard that news. Obviously, they didn’t feel very important, and they couldn’t feel very respected … when the public knew more about their jobs than they did. They had a hard time trusting their company forever after.

=> 3. Honesty

The third principle requires that you be absolutely honest. The strange thing is … most people believe themselves to be honest, but on the other hand, they don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a little dishonest. They rationalize that little white lies, exaggerations, or minor distortions of the truth are okay.

But what would you think of a manager who said, “My staff is really upset about the company’s new quality initiative,” but later you discover there had been only one minor complaint? Obviously you wouldn’t trust that manager quite as much in the future. As the philosopher Nietzche said, “What upsets me is not that you lied to me, but that from now on I can no longer believe you.”

The truth is, anything other than absolute honesty does not build trust. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t. I tell sales groups, “If the truth can’t sell, nothing should.”

=> 4. Follow-through

The fourth principle demands that you keep your promises. The Center for Creative Leadership compared executives who made it to the top, who became CEO’s, and those who were fired. The major flaw of those who didn’t make it to the top, who didn’t become CEO’s, was the fact that they did not keep their promises. They didn’t do what they said they were going to do. They couldn’t be trusted.

Every time you make a promise and don’t fulfill it, you destroy trust. And let me suggest that your colleagues never forget. If you tell someone, “I’ll get back to you,” and then fail to do so, the result is lowered trust. It’s not good enough to say, “I got busy … or … I forgot.” Excuses only create demotivated employees and lukewarm commitment.

If you want a re-energized workplace, you must keep your promises … period! Avoid mushy language such as “I’ll see … I’ll give you a call … or … I’ll think about it.” Write down your promises, if need be. Make sure you don’t forget. And follow through on commitments, even if you don’t feel like it.

=> 5. Admission

Finally, admit mistakes. Nothing turns us off quicker than seeing someone trying to cover up his mistakes, refusing to admit it when he’s wrong. On the other hand, if you know the other person is willing to admit it when he’s wrong, we find it easier to trust and follow such a person.

Of course, that’s not easy. As Sydney Harris says in “Pieces of Eight,” “The three hardest tasks in the world are neither physical feats nor intellectual achievements, but moral acts: to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say ‘I was wrong’.”

It’s never easy to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Forgive me.” But that’s one sign of an emotionally healthy person. She’s open to new information, new learnings, and new ways of doing things. The only ones who never admit they’re wrong are either stupid or stubborn, and they’re not fun to work with, and they’re hard to trust.

Many would argue that corporate loyalty and employee loyalty are a thing of the past. To some extent that may be true. Some companies change employees when it seems convenient, and some employees change companies at the first chance of a better opportunity. If that is the case, then we need trust today … more than ever, for trust is the basic ingredient of every effective human relationship. No marriage, no team, no organization ever goes beyond the trust it builds.

And trust is BUILT. Follow the five principles I’ve outlined, and you’ll strengthen the trust in your workplace at the same time you re-energize your workplace. And if you want, give me a call and we’ll put together a program designed for your organization that will bring the results you want.

Action:  Do a quick simple survey at work. Ask people on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, “How much trust exists in your workplace?” And then ask people which of the 5 principles above need the most improvement. Go to work on what they tell you.