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. If you work in an organization that's viewed as untrustworthy, you can still earn trust through your own actions and behavior, but it's likely to take a lot longer than if you were in a trusted organization. And, unfortunately, it takes much longer to rebuild a reputation of trustworthiness than it takes to lose it. When people distrust, they tend to adopt a "wait and see" mindset until they're convinced that any improved behavior in those they distrust is permanent and not just a fluke. It is much easier to keep the trust you've earned than to lose it and gain it back.

And that brings me to the factor you can control: yourself. Ultimately, you earn trust by what you say and how you behave—and this is true whether or not others are trusting by nature and whether or not the context is viewed as trustworthy. It's not any one thing that earns the trust of others, but rather a pattern of behavior over time that says, "I'm someone you can trust."

This pattern of behavior entails such things as meeting your commitments (or letting others know in advance if you find you can't), being friendly, communicating coherently, listening with the intent to hear what is being said, being open to other people's views, accepting responsibility for your mistakes, appreciating the efforts of others, treating others with respect, and exhibiting honesty, integrity, kindness, and empathy. And if you want others to trust you, you have to be willing to trust them and to act accordingly.

Basically, earning trust is a matter of doing the things we should be doing anyway, and we can do them without needing anyone's support, approval, or go-ahead. Of course, after earning trust, you can't get lazy; you have to keep on behaving in a way that justifies a continuation of that trust.

One other relevant factor is word of mouth, and this factor can work for you or against you. What people hear about you from the people they trust can dramatically influence how they react toward you. If Tom hears from his trusted buddy Sara that you're great to work with, Tom will be more predisposed to trust you even before he's met you. Conversely, if Sara badmouths you to Tom, you're likely to face a much bigger challenge in gaining Tom's trust. That provides all the more reason to conscientiously and diligently behave in a way that fosters trust.

All this was more than I had time to explain when the woman in my conference session asked me how to quickly build trust, so I simply said to her, "In the brief time that you've seen and heard me during this presentation, do I seem like someone you could trust?" She said yes. I told her, "In that case, contemplate what I've said or done that led you to feel that way, and do those things yourself."

But I wasn't comfortable giving such a glib response. After the session ended, I went looking for her to continue the conversation. I couldn't find her. Maybe she had dashed back to work to quickly build trust.

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