Must Trust be Earned?

earnI start out all my trust seminars by asking the audience to define trust. I enjoy watching the faces of the people as they wrestle with the challenge.

Clearly, trust is a word that we all use on a daily basis. We all know what it means, in general, but we have not stopped to try to come up with a precise definition.

It’s kind of like what Justice Potter Stewart once said about hard-core pornography, “It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.”

Just because someone will look it up if I don’t, Webster has numerous definitions for trust, the first one is about “assured reliance.”

Ultimately, after a few awkward moments, people start to spill out various definitions. I frequently get 15 or 20 different definitions from the group.

We then explore the idea that trust, while the phenomenon is well known to us all, is far more complex and ubiquitous than we realized before the exercise.

Clearly there are several kinds of trust. Let me share just 10 examples:

1. Count on – You have my back and have integrity.
2. Consistency – You do what you say.
3. Reliance – You do what is in my best interest.
4. Values – We share common values.
5. Safety – It is safe to voice a concern.
6. Vulnerability – You are willing to admit mistakes.
7. Humility – You do not need to always be right.
8. Dependability – I need you to keep me safe.
9. Mutual – I trust you because you trust me.
10. Equality – You are fair.

One concept that usually comes up early in the seminar is that trust is something that is earned. In this article, I would like to kick around the concept of earning trust because there are situations where trust is not earned but granted anyway.

Suppose you walk by an ice cream vendor on a street corner. You purchase an ice cream bar and begin to eat it. It would be impossible to eat the ice cream without trusting the vendor in numerous ways. Yet the vendor did nothing before you bought the ice cream to earn your trust.

In reality, you are trusting the local authorities to have some rules in place that force the vendor to have a license to sell food etc., but the vendor did nothing to directly earn your trust, except perhaps put on a clean apron.

We can think of many situations where we trust someone else, but that trust is simply given without being earned. In the long run, it is true that we will test others to identify if they are trustworthy.

That is a kind of slippery slope, because no person is 100% perfect. Every individual has some ability to mess up or behave in an untrustworthy manner at some point. Yet we put our faith in the individual and take the risk we will not get hurt.

What we are really doing is playing the odds. If a person convinces us through numerous actions and appearances that he is to be trusted, we have a kind of equity build up where we feel the risk of a betrayal is very low.

In this case, we grant trust because the person has earned it. We know it is not 100% safe; that is the nature of trust, and it is why no trust can ever be at the 100% level. There is always some risk being taken when we extend trust.

If we want to earn trust from other people, we need to convince them of a number of things quickly. I say there are five C’s that people look for before they will trust us. This is a simplistic view, of course, there are many more variables to consider, but these five are all important.

1. Care – Do you really care about me in a way I can recognize?
2. Character – Are you a person who has high integrity?
3. Congeniality – Are you the type of person whom I like?
4. Competence – Do you have the ability to deliver?
5. Consistency – Can I count on you to do what you say?

If you can convince me that you have the five C’s, then I will likely trust you until you give me a reason not to. I believe it is possible to demonstrate the five C’s rather quickly when meeting a new person.

Actually, I think it can be done in only a few seconds.

The most difficult one is to demonstrate consistency. After all, to be consistent means doing the same thing time after time over a long period of time. Yet I believe it is possible to convey that you are the type of person who is consistent rather quickly.

For example, if we are meeting at a convention and I tell you that I will send you a copy of an article, then follow up with, “can you give me your contact information,” that demonstrates a kind of consistency that I will follow up on my promise.

The Five C’s are far from an exhaustive list of ways to build trust. In reality there are several hundred things a person can do to earn trust. They all contribute in various ways to the formation of a relationship based on trust.

One of the key factors is whether I show trust in you. If you believe that I trust you, that will be a huge enabler of you trusting me. Reason: Trust is usually reciprocal.

I think the process of earning trust is an infinitely fascinating topic. There are so many variables involved, and trust, in any setting, is a very fragile commodity. One thing is for sure, before you can sell anything to anyone, that person must trust you.

Recently, Seth Godin put out a blog on the topic of earning trust. He ended the blog with, “Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.”

6 Responses to Must Trust be Earned?

  1. bobvanourek says:

    Another great post from The Trust Ambassador.
    A small, added dimension I have learned over the years: Trust is earned when someone is vulnerable and not taken advantage of.
    We in the leadership world speak about values, integrity, authenticity, and more. But these words are not as clear to people as the word “trust.”
    Focus on earning and building trust with people, and you will develop as a leader.
    Thank You Bob W.

  2. Reblogged this on The Pediatric Profiler ™ and commented:
    Robert Whipple writes about businesses. His message, however, applies equally well to parenting and teaching.
    Children are born wanting love, acceptance, and respect. The rest we have to teach them. And to teach them we have to engage them and then prove to them that they can trust us.
    In my practice I hear and witness numerous examples where this does not take place. I have had parents and professionals tell me that they won’t show a child or adolescent respect until they show respect first. But where are our children and adolescents supposed to learn what respect feels and looks like? They have to trust that the adults around them will demonstrate it repeatedly so that they have a model to follow.
    Look at the 10 examples of trust that Mr. Whipple has listed. Can you state without exception that you demonstrate these types of trust to the children and adolescents in your life on a daily basis? Would they agree?
    I would like to challenge you for the next week to keep track of these 10 examples of trust in your interactions with children and adolescents in your care of for whom you are providing services (teaching, counseling, etc.). After each encounter, go down the checklist and check off if you demonstrated the examples. If not, why? At the end of the week, reflect on how your relationship with that child (or those children) has gone. If you began to change your approach based on how you rated the earlier encounters, did the response from the child appear to change in any way? Good or bad?
    Let me know how it turns out. If you are still struggling maybe I could help you via coaching.
    Looking forward to hearing from you at the end of the week.

  3. Thank you Bob for another great post. I have reposted and challenged my readers to measure their use of your ten examples of trust over the next week in their encounters with children and adolescents. I anticipate that their will be many “ah ha” realizations that they are expecting things of children that they don’t give to them.

  4. Andrew Brady says:

    Thanks for sharing, Bob! Have you read Simon Sinek’s new book Leaders Eat Last? He talks about how Oxytocin builds in our system over time when we feel like we can trust the people around us and discusses the evolutionary reason for the 4 happiness-related chemicals: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. A compelling argument for creating a culture of trust and safety. Worth reading (or, you can watch this video and save yourself 10 books and a few hours reading the book http://99u.com/videos/20272/simon-sinek-why-leaders-eat-last)

    • trustambassador says:

      Thanks very much for sharing this, Andrew. I found it interesting and educational. I have used the analogy of safety as an enabler of trust often. I believe that trust and fear are incompatible. So, Simon’s talk resonated well with what I believe.

  5. Kellie says:

    Reblogged this on Redefining life after being an executive and commented:
    I love the concept and practice of trust. This is a great article.

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