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The problem with how we talk about trust

and increasing it in business

Let's talk about trust. It's one of those things that we intrinsically know if it's there or if it's not. We know that without trust we don't work effectively with others, we won't support our leaders and we won't willingly purchase things from people we don't trust.

So I probably shouldn't be surprised by the amount of information that is out there about trust.

But a lot of it worries me and as an advocate of growing high trust working environments, I wanted to understand why.

So I did what works best for me when I need to work things out, I got curious, I pondered it for a while, dug into my book collection, tuned into to what people were saying a bit more, drank coffee and walked the dog, always good for letting ideas brew nicely!

Are you ready? It's time to get curious about trust and make some choices about how we can develop trust in our working relationships.

What difference does trust make?

For many people trust is a bit of an abstract and loose concept, we know it's a good thing but it can be hard to explain what trust actually is. Ultimately it's about how believable we think someone is and effectively how much confidence you have in them.

The level of trust there is in our working relationships matters - it impacts everything from how we delegate, how we communicate, how we lead, how we work with customers and suppliers, the number and type of controls we have in our business, to how we get results and ultimately to how profitable our businesses are.

But how does that work? Well, the more confidence or trust you have in the person you are working with the quicker and easier it is to get things done. You are not going to spend as long checking what they have or have not done and communication is clearer and more effective when you trust the person you are talking to.

In the book 'The Speed Of Trust' Stephen R Covey and Rebecca Merrill share the idea of a trust dividend being applied in situations where trust is high and a trust tax being in force when trust is low. They give the example of the time it takes to clear airport security. After the terror attacks of 9/11 the time it takes to clear security significantly increased as trust declined thanks to the attacks. 

We see the trust dividends and taxes in operation all around us every day, when we work with people we trust we can work quickly to get good results with very little bureaucracy, we benefit from that dividend, but when we work with people we haven't worked with before or who have let us done in the past, everything is harder, we want more controls in place and we pay the tax for the lack of trust.

So what's the problem you have with trust?

Given that there is no doubting how important trust is, part of me is glad that so many people are talking about it and encouraging us to develop trust.

Where it starts to break down for me is how people are talking about it and how actually some of the ways they are talking about it and developing it are fundamentally floored.

That is what's been bothering me and which as a result of a conversation with Maggie at Small Business Boss about some of the things we were seeing, I came to think of as actually broken. 

In some of the examples we were discussing, the advice people were being given so they could 'manufacture trust to get people to buy things or do things' actually fundamentally erodes trust.

With all the uncertainty in the world at the moment, there is a kind of longing to have something or someone we can trust and to be living with more trust in our relationships both at home and at work. And when you are hearing that the thing you need to do is to manufacture trust to get more sales, to be a better leader or to work better with your stakeholders, so to secure your future you are going to listen.

You can't manufacture trust - it is impossible - let me explain why

But let's stay curious when we hear messages like this and question what we are hearing before we just accept it as fact and let's keep making conscious choices.

So some thoughts about trust and why some of the things we are being told about manufacturing trust actually erode it.

Firstly, you can't make someone trust you. If, and how much, they trust you is their decision, not yours. You can only create an environment that makes it possible for them to trust you, by extend trust and trusting them first and by making sure you behave in a way that is entirely trustworthy.

Secondly, you can't manufacture trust. Trust is a living organic thing, it ebbs and flows and it lives and breathes as part of every relationship you have. And living things can't be manufactured. You can't make eggs for example, well except for Creme Eggs and those may be delicious to eat but they never hatch. Yes, you can intensively farm to increase the quantity of eggs you get but when you do that the quality of the eggs you get goes down.

With trust, we need quality and not just quantity to sustain our relationships in the long term. It's a living thing that we are looking to grow by nurturing it and taking care of it.

Manufactured trust has no foundations - and we know what happens when you build something without foundations - it is likely to fall.

Talking about building trust feels a bit better to me - at least there is the implication of those foundations being present and it reminds us that it's a cumulative process. If you are looking to build trust (as all marketing gurus tell us to) remember that it needs to be built on strong foundations.

The Foundations of Trust

So what are the foundations of trust? For me, the best description comes from the Speed of Trust where Covey and Merrill describe what they call the Four Cores, Integrity, Intent, Capability and Results.

We need to model all four of these, demonstrating them as behaviours consistently for people to be able to trust us, leave any one of them out, even for a while and the roots of the trust you are growing will be damaged badly and the trust you are growing will be damaged too. As with anything you are growing being consistent in how you look after something is important - a plant won't do well if you give it a year's worth of water all at once, keeping the water level consistent in the soil works much better for the plant. It's the same for trust.


The first foundational core of trust is integrity, that is being honest and then standing by your principles even if there is a personal cost to you, it's doing what you say you will do when you say you will do it. In the book, they give the example of the tennis player Andy Roddick who was given a point when his opponents shot was called out. That point would have given him the match, but he told the umpire that the ball was good and the game continued. Roddick eventually lost the match but his integrity was very much intact. Longer-term that meant match officials knew they could trust his word on future line calls.

Integrity starts with the little things, do you keep your commitments to yourself, do you get up when you say you will, do you deliver work when you say you will, are you a person of your word? Each time you are, each commitment you keep, you are building your integrity.


The second foundational core is Intent. What are your motives for doing what you do? We are more likely to trust a charity whose motives are helping others than we are for example to trust a politician whose motive would seem to be power.

It's another reason I'm sceptical about the concept of manufacturing trust and using it as a sales tactic - if your motive for developing the trust is self-serving it totally erodes this foundational core. If the trust you have built is without this foundation it will fall away quickly which often leads to long term damage in the relationship. In a sales situation, this can be buyers regret at having given you their business, on a project it can be stakeholders and users feeling resentful towards what is being implemented and from a leadership perspective, it can lead to polarised factions in your team.

You can manage this foundation by checking your intentions before you act and sharing those intentions. When people understand your intent they are more forgiving should you act in a way they consider untrustworthy.


The third foundational core is Capability. This is about having the skills and knowledge to do what you do, it's about using them and about keeping them up to date. We trust people who have the capabilities we need and use them appropriately. You may have a friend who is an excellent chef and who is great with a knife. No matter how much you trust them when it comes to making a meal you are unlikely to trust them to perform surgery on you, even though they have those great knife skills you know they don't have the other capabilities a surgeon needs.

We maintain our capability levels through continual learning, by being curious, by reading, listening to podcasts and having great conversations with other knowledgable people. We also learn by using what we learn, by actually doing - that builds our own trust in our abilities as well as the trust of others.


The final foundational core is Results. We are much more likely to trust someone with a track record of getting results, that's why we need to look after the results we get when we work with people. That's why we see a lot of inflated performance and results claims on people's CV's, on LinkedIn, on people and company websites. However, if you do inflate claims in order to demonstrate results, you compromising on that first core, integrity, you are taking out two pillars of your foundation and suddenly being worthy of trust is looking very precarious and you are at serious risk of paying a tax for the lack of trust!

Summary & Taking Action

So in this episode, we have talked about how fundamental trust is to getting great business results. In high trust environments, we can make things happen quickly and with the minimal amount of process controls, we get a dividend in terms of business performance. However, when trust is low we pay the penalty, or rather an ongoing tax in terms of costs and motivation.

We talked about how this is leading to some people encouraging us to manufacture trust and why that simply isn't possible since we can't make people trust us and you can't manufacture something that is a living thing. We talked about how instead we need to make sure the foundations for being trustworthy are in place, how we need to focus on acting with integrity, making sure our intent is good and is clear, on building our capabilities and on getting genuine results. Demonstrating to others that it is OK to trust us, that we are trustworthy is all about how we behave and we will look at that in a bit more detail in the next episode.

The things I share in this podcast are based on my experience. Some will be more relevant to you than others and it's up to you to decide what you are going to do with them. My hope is that you will find something you can take and apply. But that's up to you and it's exactly what being a Curious Choice Leader is all about, getting curious, building your understanding and then making some choices about what's best for you, your team and your business.

So the question I would like to leave you with is 

What are you doing to build your strength in each of the four foundational cores of trust, integrity, intent, capability and results?