How to Quickly Build Trust

You can't get far in your career if people don't trust you. Yet trust is such an elusive concept. It's not tangible. It's not concrete. It's not something you can point to and say, "That's what it looks like." In this column, Naomi Karten ruminates about the concept of trust and offers some ideas about what you can and cannot control in earning the trust of others.

In the final forty-five seconds of a presentation I gave at an IT conference, a woman in the audience asked, "How do you build trust quickly?"

What a thought-provoking question! After all, if people trust you, you can inspire them to consider your ideas and follow your lead. Conversely, if they don't trust you, they may discount, dismiss, or ignore anything you say or do. Without trust, accomplishing almost anything is more difficult.

Unfortunately, earning trust isn't a calendar-based activity or a three-step process. You can estimate a completion date with projects, but not so with trust. Nevertheless, if you're joining a department, starting a new job, taking over a team (or a company), or undertaking any of numerous other efforts, it's reasonable to want to gain people's trust as quickly as possible.

The common wisdom is that trust is something you have to earn; it's not automatically conferred just because you would like to be trusted. However, this wisdom is an oversimplification. Several factors influence how quickly you're able to gain trust; and while some of these factors are within your control, others aren't.

One factor that's outside of your control is the trust level in the other party. People develop trust at different rates in different circumstances, and some people are simply more trusting than others.

Some people enter new relationships with a tendency to distrust until circumstances and the passage of time convince them otherwise. If you attempt to gain their trust too quickly, they may just see you as scheming or insincere. Other people enter relationships with trust as a given, and they maintain that trust until circumstances demonstrate that they shouldn't. And even then, they may remain trusting.

Furthermore, for each of us, trust has boundaries, but your boundaries and mine undoubtedly differ. Also where we locate those boundaries varies with the situation. You might trust me to keep you from venturing too close to the edge of a cliff, but not trust me to find the bugs in the code. I might trust you to meet the deadline you agreed to, but not to drive my gorgeous blue Jaguar through rush-hour traffic (if I had a gorgeous blue Jaguar, which—trust me—I don't).

Another factor largely outside of your control is the context. If you're part of a group that has gained a reputation for being untrustworthy, you can suffer distrust by association. I once worked in an IT organization whose customers strenuously distrusted IT, an understandable reaction given IT's history of poor performance. Although some of us had excellent relationships with our customers, many customers didn't distinguish one IT department from another and roundly distrusted all of us. Meanwhile, the departments most guilty of shoddy service kept finding ways to exacerbate the distrust. I'll never forget the manager of a not-too-successful IT department who, with a sense of glee at his own perceived cleverness, gave a major new project a name whose initials were ASAP. The department didn't deliver ASAP. It didn't deliver at all-another trustbuster.

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