Why You Can’t Build Trust

Defining the word “trust” is hard. In fact, there are more definitions for trust than love. It’s that complicated of a concept.

In my work supporting and shaping high-performing teams, I start with establishing psychological safety and trust, which much of the organizational science research shows are the two most foundational elements of exceptional collaboration. This involves sifting through definitions of trust to concretely establish what the ideal might look like.

Until recently, I’ve fallen back on the original etymology from Old Norse. In Old Norse, “traust” means confidence, help, or protection. This feels vivid, weighty, and actionable, at the very least because I can ask my teams to reckon with their responsibility to their teammates. When teammates implicitly or explicitly ask whether they can trust one another, they are asking if others will help them and protect them.

After processing this responsibility, though, team members come back and ask how they can build trust.

This has always been a tricky question for me. The truth is that I find myself stumped, too. This is because in my experience, trust is more easily explained when its absent. Personally, completing the sentence, “I don’t trust you because…” is much simpler than “I trust you because…” for me across all of my relationships.

This week at INBOUND, I understood why. “How do I build trust?” is a challenging question because it’s the wrong one. As trust theorist and author of Who Can You Trust? Rachel Botsman highlighted in her stage talk, trust is not something you can build; it’s something you have to earn.

In other words, trust has to be given to you. You can’t build it.

This means that whether someone trusts you or not is largely out of your control, an especially daunting concept when we consider that if “money is the currency of transactions, [then] trust is the currency of interactions.”

At work, all of our interactions are defined by trust, whether they are interactions with fellow team members, customers, or the community. Yet, we can’t make people trust us. We can, however, be trustworthy. But that involves going back to trust and understanding what it is.

What Is Trust?

At the beginning of her talk, Botsman had us participate in a short exercise. We had to first clap for the brand — Tesla, Facebook, or Amazon — we trusted most. Then, we had to follow up by booing for the person we trusted least: Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, or Jeff Bezos. The answers didn’t line up. Most people clapped for Amazon and booed for Jeff Bezos.

So, why do we trust Amazon but not Jeff Bezos? It turns out it comes down to a flaw in the question. We shouldn’t be asking, “Who do you trust?” but “Who do you trust to do this thing?” We trust Amazon to carry the items we want to buy, deliver them quickly and seamlessly, and allow for easy and painless returns. We don’t trust Jeff Bezos to, for example, respect antitrust laws or use our data responsibly.

Trust is contingent on action. We trust people and companies based on whether we believe and see them engage in consistent behaviors.

That’s why it’s easier to think about why you don’t trust someone than why you do; it’s easier to see a break with consistency than the maintenance of it. It only takes one breach for trust to be broken, but it takes a steady stream of kept promises to maintain and strengthen it.

This brings me back to an analogy Stephen Covey draws in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He writes that everyone has an Emotional Bank Account. Our actions either result in a deposit or a withdrawal from that bank account.

“If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it.”

In this analogy, it’s clear that trust isn’t black and white, but a living and breathing set of choices, actions, and inactions. Importantly, these actions carry different weights and don’t map one-to-one.

Making the most important deadline we’ve had as a company doesn’t automatically get canceled out by missing a minor one, though I might drain some funds from that bank account in the latter situation. Still, my reserve can sustain the withdrawal. Conversely, recovering from telling you a major lie may not be as simple as telling the truth a few times afterwards.

What this comes down to is the definition Botsman has landed on for trust.

“Trust is a confident relationship with the unknown.”

In the gap between the known and the unknown, trust acts as the bridge, eliminating our fear of risk and instead encouraging us to either see a given situation as low risk or worth the opportunity that comes with risk.

What Does It Mean to Be Trustworthy?

For a people-obsessed practitioner like me, Botsman’s definition begs the question of what makes for a confident relationship with the unknown. After all, fear of the unknown is one of the most universal fears across Eastern and Western philosophies and religions. Human beings don’t like uncertainty; it breeds feelings of threat and danger.

This is where thinking of trust as not about who you trust, but who you trust to do what, comes in handy.

I often say that my best friend Katina is one of the people I trust most. This is not because she is my best friend (though it’s likely she’s my best friend because of these feelings of trust) but because of what I trust her to do.

This weekend after seeing each other after almost two years of strictly long distance communication, we found ourselves wandering her hometown cemetery talking about our death plans, orientations towards grief, and sense of responsibility to those we love. As macabre as this may seem, for us, it’s part of a relationship grounded in contemplation and idea-sharing on bigger, broader philosophical topics. Still, while I can honestly say we both feel comfortable talking about death, the conversation itself required a great deal of trust.

For me to share early, unformed ideas with someone is risky, especially someone engaging in a thought experiment about how they would react if I died. I’m not ashamed to admit that I care a lot about what people think of me, and while I don’t have strong feelings about how I want to be remembered by the world, I do have an innate need to feel like I matter to the people who matter to me.

Yet, we spent two hours experimenting, defining, revisiting, debating, challenging, and sometimes digressing with relative naturalness and ease. That’s because I trust Katina to do three things: commit to understanding my perspective, no matter how underdeveloped it may be; show sensitivity to my past experiences and histories and find ways to gauge if she’s pushing me too far; and, vulnerably share her own perspectives and experiences, too.

Why do I trust her to do these three things? Because over the course of almost ten years, she has consistently, predictably, and effectively done all three, not just to humor me, but because she values these behaviors, too.

This is where being trustworthy at work becomes less navigable than at home or in our personal relationships. How many of us can say that we have ten years of deposits in our Emotional Bank Accounts with each and every person we collaborate with on our teams? Not to mention that we know what they value, expect, and need from us to feel trust.

Botsman’s model for being trustworthy and earning trust addresses this challenge dead on, and surprisingly, by naming four traits easily identified in my more personal example.

According to Botsman, to be trustworthy involves both capability traits and character traits. The capability traits — competence and reliability — define how we do things, while the character traits, empathy and integrity, define why we do them. At work, we usually spend our time focusing on capability traits instead of character traits. However, both are essential.

But what do competence, reliability, empathy, and integrity mean?

  • Competence: Do you have the skills, knowledge, and resources to say what you will do and then do what you said?
  • Reliability: Are you reliable in doing what you say? Do you do things on time? And, are you consistent in your behaviors?
  • Empathy: Do you understand other people’s interests and needs? Do you think about how your decisions will affect others? Do you respect differing opinions?
  • Integrity: Do you say what you mean and mean what you say? Do your words align with your actions? Are you honest about your intentions and whether they are aligned with others?

In focusing your efforts on building your own competence, reliability, empathy, and integrity skills, you become more trustworthy, increasing the likelihood that you will earn trust from others. Conveniently, being trustworthy means earning trust is faster because you end up sending more credible trust signals.

Parting Words

Trust matters to me, perhaps more than to many others. I coach people going through very difficult situations at work, and in order to help them and solve major company problems, I need them to trust me enough to tell me the truth, let me in, and give me the space to find and try out solutions.

That’s why I spend huge amounts of mental real estate thinking about how to earn trust, and why I so frequently feel personally defeated when I don’t. In an early conversation with one of my founders, I explained that I was feeling stuck in a particularly tough team coaching scenario where the people I coached kept asking to know what their teammates were telling me, including him. They kept saying that in order to earn their trust, I had to engage in behavior that I believed might compromise trust with their fellow colleagues.

Quietly and with a great deal of patience, he listened to the situation, and then shared what felt like a very simple statement:

“If you want people to trust you, you have to be trustworthy.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come into conflict with people who feel I am withholding information they need, usually for emotional reasons, that their colleagues disclosed to me in confidence. But, all I can do is encourage those colleagues to share the same sentiments or ideas with others as they do with me. The minute I turn around and share what was meant to be kept private, I am acting inconsistently, unreliably, without empathy, and especially, without integrity.

Because, I want to earn people’s trust so I can help them and protect them. And to do all of that, I have to be trustworthy.

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