Reflections on Trust: The Power of Trusting People to Be True to Themselves delves into how trust works in personal and business situations
Many people are talking about trust in business these days. I am, too, because it’s the core of my business as well as my personal life. It just occurred to me that there are often some accidental gotchas within many trust discussions I read, and I’ll explore them in case that’s useful to you. First, I’ll delve into trust a little before sharing some insights on how you can make it actionable in your personal, career, and business relationships.
Reflections on Trust
The core meaning of trust, for me, is reliability, which means being predictable, doing what you say you’ll do. Context has a big impact on what people feel about trust, and trust carries a significant amount of emotion, too. The most fascinating part about it is that most people trust from a “gut” or feeling place more often than a thinking place. People are rarely aware of how they trust. Try me on this—ask some of your friends and colleagues how they trust. I think you’ll be surprised.
To get deeper into it, I’ll try to remove the emotional wrapper that’s usually carried by the context of the situation. Reliability means that I can predict a person’s behavior, whether “good” or “bad.” Since humans have big brains, we have a “theory of mind,” which holds that we recognize that another person may be thinking something really different from what we think, or from what s/he is saying. All of us can lie and mislead, and this makes truth precious. Moreover, most human endeavors depend on other people, so knowing what people are thinking is really important to us.
Therefore, trust helps us to manage risks. We recognize that each of us has the discretion to tell the truth or mislead.
Trust is rarely discussed between people. Each person seems to adjust his/her trust meter based on another person’s behavior. “Words are cheap” reflects the reality that a person can say one thing and do another. Actions are less conscious and are usually a better reflection of what a person really thinks or feels. “Actions speak louder than words.”
The other thing is, trust is conditioned on the situation in which the trusted and the truster are both actors. I can only speak for myself, but a big part of building rewarding relationships is knowing how to trust people, and for what. Someone can be trustworthy for one thing and not for another.
Now let’s turn to practical matters. My primary context here is the trust that may exist between a business and its customers and employees. I read, analyze and comment on many posts about customer experience, employee engagement, customer success, and other trust issues. I perceive that often when people say, “I can trust you,” there’s an ellipsis there, as in “to do what’s right.” And another ellipsis continues, “for me.”
In other words, there’s an expectation that the trusted person acts in the interest of the truster. I think this is where a lot of unhappiness happens.
Since I analyze many socially rich interactions, I have more than my personal experience to go on. This is where things get really interesting—and transformational.
I think trust is a largely unconscious negotiation between people, or between companies and people. Each party is mostly aware of his/her desires, which color his/her perception of the interaction, and what s/he wants of the other person. We are all subjective to a large extent, and it takes work to lessen our subjectivity.
What if I learned to recognize and appreciate my subjectivity, to be very present with it, so I could set it aside? Such an action could enable me to perceive what other people are about in terms of themselves. So I could see them for them, not for what I wanted them to be. This would enable me to trust them to be true to themselves.
I observe that trust breakdowns happen within these ellipses:
I can trust you… to do what’s right… for me.
Often one or both parties make assumptions about trust that don’t match up. “What’s right” is subjective and conditional on the situation. “For me” works when there is alignment between the truster’s and the trusted person’s truth and will—but when these diverge, conflict happens. The trusted person, assuming s/he is aware of the conflict, is faced with an uncomfortable choice:
- Do what the truster wants even though it’s not what the trusted wants
Do what s/he wants, not what the truster wants
- Further, in either case the trusted person can choose to share his/her experience with the truster. Verbalize the conflict and his/her decision, or keep it private.
In my experience, verbalizing the conflict communicates confidence and invites more trust and intimacy. Depending on who the people are and the situation they are in, it can entail considerable risk, but in any event, it increases trust considerably.
Making Trust Actionable
Returning to the title, here are three things that drastically improve how trust works in personal and business relationships:
- I strive to become and remain aware of my will and subjectivity, and I realize that I am responsible for them
- I strive to observe other people primarily to understand them in terms of themselves
- When there’s a conflict, I’m transparent about it
When I do these three things, people can feel freer around me because they can act on what they want more often without conflicts. I can avoid many of the assumptions that lurk in the ellipses and cause trust breakdowns. I can minimize conflicts because people will feel that I’m interested in what they want, not only in what I want. I can work through the conflicts that emerge without fear.
The beautiful thing is, each person has the ability to do these three things, without assistance from anyone else. Yes, some people are difficult to trust when they are unclear about themselves, or when they are dishonest. But most people are fairly honest and clear, especially when a conflict isn’t present.
Firms and organizations can do this, too; in fact, that’s what I help my clients to do. Here’s what it looks like for a commercial firm:
- We define our will and subjectivity. Who are the most profitable customers, the most productive employees? Who is most valuable to us? We recognize that some people are more valuable to us. We are responsible for this.
- We identify hidden agendas we have for the people we identified in Step One. For customers, we recognize that people don’t like our products or services as much as we do. The people we identified in Step One use our products/services to attain outcomes that are personally meaningful to them. We study these outcomes intensely because they are tightly connected to the wills of customers and employees. We realize that, when we support people in attaining these outcomes in digital public, where everyone observes us, these successful outcomes will create pull-through business of the most profitable kind.
- When there are conflicts, we verbalize them and work them through in public. For example, when a customer is unhappy with a product and the return period has passed. We can say, “Well, we understand why you’re unhappy and the return period has expired. We value your relationship more than the cost of the return, so here’s your return confirmation number!”
Differences for a Business
Of course, a business is a group of people with a business strategy, so it’s more abstract and less personal than trust between people, and making exceptions as in Step Three above can be calculated risks because some people will insist on the same treatment, but all people will observe and feel touched. This is a powerful lever in growing business sustainably. More than the details of the interaction, the lever is based on the emotion. Verbalizing that the relationship is more important than the details is the fulcrum of the lever, when this is authentic. It can be authentic only when the business has done Step One.
Another thing I’ve learned about trust is that most people and firms really want to be trusted. It is precarious when they insist on being trusted because this is overstepping the fact that each person is sovereign over his/her trust. By definition, trusting is discretionary to the truster, and violating that discretion by insisting on being trusted engenders mistrust (how do you feel when someone says, “Trust me!”?). Trust cannot be taken, it is given, so it is earned. In a business context, see the Trust-Business Chain Reaction to see how this works for businesses at scale, step by step.
The most empowering thing a person or a business can do, in a personal and business context, is to give trust first—by trusting the other person to do what’s right for him/herself. When the culture, rules, and employees of the firm interact on this basis, they earn trust through their interactions, which are available for all to see. As I shared in the What If? video, I’ve learned that people as a group are trustworthy when they’re in digital public, with very few exceptions.
You can trust people. Try it!