7 Ways to Earn Trust

| | General Leadership

In her post Change and the Credibility Factor, Gwyn Teatro pointed out that a synonym for credibility is trustworthiness. In reading her excellent list of things we can do to earn credibility, I started thinking about this question:

What simple, everyday actions can we take to earn trust?

This is not to say that I think earning a reputation as being trustworthy is a simple endeavor. The conditions for trusting can be very personal and we don’t always make rational assessments when it comes to trusting others.

We also don’t all take the same approach. Some of us grant trust and take it away when someone does not live up to our standards. Others believe trust must be earned. The rest of us fall somewhere in between.

Nonetheless, there are things we can do to give others reason to trust us.

Here are my top 7 recommended ways to develop a reputation for being trustworthy.

1. Be on time: Consider that being consistently late sends a very loud message, not just about your reliability, but about your lack of respect for and commitment to the other people who have to wait for you. If there is a pattern of people showing up late, you do not get a free pass from this one. Showing up consistently on time in an organization that has this costly habit is an opportunity to lead. Why not take advantage of the opportunity?

2. Prepare. We use the excuse of having to go to so many meetings or back to back meetings not only as a reason for being late, but for not preparing adequately. As one of my coaches, Gordon Star, used to say: failing to prepare is preparing to fail. It also wastes peoples’ time, including yours. If you waste my time, how likely am I to trust you with something else that matters to me?

3. Do not gossip: If you have an issue with someone, work it out with them. From what I have seen there is way too much gossip occurring under the guise of venting. What’s the difference? When you vent you actually have a commitment to working things out with the person with whom you have an issue. Venting is one thing you do to prepare to have what could be a difficult conversation. Gossiping is venting without commitment. Besides, what message are you sending to the person you are gossiping to? They may be left wondering if they will be next.

4. Keep confidential conversations confidential: Knowing something others are not supposed to know is a big responsibility. It can also be a bit intoxicating. If you have to mention to someone else that you shouldn’t be telling them this, do you really think that qualifies as keeping a confidence? You may experience a moment of power, but consider whether it is worth the risk to your reputation or to others.

5. Honor your promises. I use the word “honor” instead of “keep” your promises deliberately because no one keeps all of their promises. Stuff happens and we are, after all, human. So this means EITHER do what you said you would do OR tell someone in advance of the due date that you can’t deliver. When you can’t deliver and you tell someone in advance, you can figure out together how to deal with the potential breakdown. That doesn’t count as keeping your promise, but it does honor your commitment and your relationship.

6. Admit when you don’t know something. It is an illusion to think that if we hide what we don’t know we will protect the perception that we are competent. Reality is that the more competent we are the more aware we are of what we don’t know and the more confident we will be that we can find out. Admitting you don’t know something is a sign of strength, not weakness. Also consider that, as a manager, if I know you will admit when you don’t know, I am actually more likely to entrust you with something that may be a stretch for you.

7. Own your mistakes. Admitting your mistakes is a good start because it demonstrates honesty. Want to demonstrate reliability, too? Take full responsibility by dealing with the consequences of your mistakes and taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn.

These all fall into the “simple, but not easy” category for many of us. Yet if you do these things consistently you greatly increase your chances of being trusted with the things that really matter.

What else can we do to increase our trustworthiness in the eyes of others? Please add you ideas so we can all learn from your wisdom and experience.


Enter A Comment

Jann Freed   |   29 April 2009   |   Reply

I appreciate reading your leadership posts. The list above sounds so easy. Why do you think it is difficult for most people do follow your list?

Susan Mazza   |   29 April 2009   |   Reply

Great question Jann. I think there are a number of things at play here.

One is that we aren’t really awake to the cost of not doing these things on our reputation or on the people around us. For example, the person who gossips or leaks confidential information may never know the damage they have caused to another person or the organization.

The second is that the emotion of the moment can trump rational thinking. If I am worried about looking bad in front of my boss I may succumb to the fear of unpleasant consequences like a bad performance review rather than admitting a mistake or that I do not know something.

The third is that justifying our untrustworthy behavior is easier, mostly because we all too often get away with it. At least we seem to be getting away with it because in the moment we are may not experience any negative consequences. In fact we may just be going along with the crowd so who is going to hold us accountable anyway? This is perhaps the most compelling justification of all.

Yet this gets back to being unaware of the cost. While you may not “get in trouble”, people will take notice consciously or subconsciously. That will inform their assessment of your trustworthiness even if they can’t put their finger on exactly why they don’t trust you.

Every one of these requires that we choose the behavior consciously rather than get swept up in the emotion or justification of the moment. Conscious choice can be much harder and it takes a commitment to being personally responsible. Those who are committed to being personally responsible will have a much easier time doing these things and are more likely to be considered trustworthy in my opinion.

great ogbe   |   31 July 2012   |   Reply

all i have read about you is for real i will be honored if my request can be granted by you MA

Gwyn Teatro   |   29 April 2009   |   Reply

Isn’t it great when one set of thoughts leads to another? It adds a lot of richness to the subject and allows for a collaboration that, without the wonders of the internet, would not otherwise happen…a very cool thing.

All of the points you raise are critical to building trust. I particularly like the fine distinction you make between honoring promises and keeping them. Too often we can be reticent to make any commitments at all for fear that we will let others down. But, a commitment can still be fulfilled even when life gets in the way. It just requires discussion and amendment agreeable between, or among, the people involved.

Paula Wilbert   |   30 April 2009   |   Reply

Great post Susan! I think for many people the ego comes into play, especially in #3, 4, 6 & 7 of your list above and interferes with the desired behavior. I would also add truthfulness or honesty to the list above. People who are open and honest earn my trust quicker than those that engage in fact bending or even tiny “white lies”.

Wally Bock   |   30 April 2009   |   Reply

Jann, I’ll agree with Susan’s responses. She and the commenters have answered you in terms of individual motivation and behavior. I think that’s part of the picture, but there’s more.

We’re coming to the end of a cycle where private interest and private rights have been touted at the expense of public responsibility. We’ve made heroes of people who “win at any cost.” We’ve derided as stupid people who are honest when it can cost them a job or a promotion. If you take those points of view, it makes perfect sense to treat a promise as a matter of convenience, or treat the time of others as being at your disposal, or not admit anything that you don’t have to.

Twenty years from now, I think what Susan suggests here will be more the norm. Today, we’re at the self-centered end of the cycle.

Pat Roland   |   30 April 2009   |   Reply

The only thing I would add is “Mind Your Own Business.” When other people are constantly judging me or telling me what they think I ought to be doing, it causes me to wonder whose agenda they are most interested in. So many people are hurt when someone else “is just trying to help” when they can’t possibly understand what another people is thinking or going through.

While it may not sound politically correct, we all do things to please ourselves. I help others so I can feel good about myself; I don’t want my children to feel pain because it causes me pain; I say kind things to people because I want them to think kindly of me. To me this is not a bad thing. It is just important to know it and understand why I do what I do. That’s enough to keep me too busy to worry about what others are doing!

Larry Sheldon   |   01 May 2009   |   Reply

I would expqnd the list bt two and replicate the existing #5, #6, and #7 as new #1, #2, and #3. They are worth noting twice because I think Trust begins and ends with them.

I don’t think Trust can begin to develop without them, and it will end when they do.

How I Lost Thirty Pounds in Thirty Days   |   03 May 2009   |   Reply

Hi, nice post. I have been pondering this topic,so thanks for writing. I’ll certainly be coming back to your blog.

Chuck Musciano   |   05 May 2009   |   Reply


If I had to condense your post into a single tweet, it would be “Listen to your Mom.” Everything you listed are the basic elements of good character that good parents have been teaching since the dawn of time. These aren’t magic solutions discovered after years of deep research; these are the foundations of civilized society.

Pat’s comment strikes a chord: “we all do things to please ourselves.” We are all born inherently selfish; children look out for themselves. When we allow children to grow to adults without this instruction, we create grown-up children who break all these rules. I hope Wally is right; the pendulum may indeed swing back. Unfortunately, these kinds of character flaws used to be corrected with a little public chastising and consternation. Now, we are so afraid of offending anyone that we just let these things go.

Sadly, the people who need this advice rarely read blogs on this kind of self-improvement.

Lisa Hickey   |   05 May 2009   |   Reply

Many of these are based around having good values in general — being kind and considerate of others. Yet even the things that I always try to integrate into my own life are helped by an articulate voice that can become part of the “voice inside my head.”

But the one that really stood out for me — the one that got me to really think about things a little differently, was #2 “Prepare”. I always thought about preparation as something one did for one’s own sake, not for others. But when you said:
“If you waste my time, how likely am I to trust you with something else that matters to me?” I got that rush of an “aha”. Brilliant. I will carry that sentence around in my pocket and until it becomes a part of me.

thank you.

Susan Mazza   |   07 May 2009   |   Reply

Thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts and insights.

While I have worked with organizations on these things for a long time there is one thing in particular that I have been reflecting on: do people really get the power they have to impact others? Because if they did I think these things would be a lot more natural.

I have watched people be judged and/or reprimanded for every one of these things (starting with Mom!). It is fair to say that the people who most need this feedback probably won’t be reading posts like this and that private interests/rights have been touted at the expense of personal responsibilty.

Yet I think what most people do not really get is how much they matter. This includes being awake to the impact they have on others for better or for worse. As leaders I think one of our jobs is to wake people to themselves and each other so they can choose to be responsible or not, as well as feel compelled to show up with the best of what they have to offer because they know it matters and they matter.

Harwinder   |   06 July 2009   |   Reply

Great article and the discussion following it.

How about some of the obvious things we should do to earn trust, like acting in an honest manner (don’t lie, don’t cheat), show respect to others, treat people fairly, etc. Are these points also in line with your idea of earning trust? Basically all these points fall under the umbrella of ethical conduct and I know most of your points also touch upon ethics in some way.

Susan Mazza   |   08 July 2009   |   Reply

Thanks for your comment. Most certainly – the things you point to like honesty and respect are certainly fundamental to earning trust. I think ethical conduct is a great “banner” for those things.

Jann Freed   |   23 July 2009   |   Reply

The one that I would add is to trust others. When you demonstrate that you trust them, they start to trust you. It is a reciprocal relationship and a critical one for leaders to develop for sure. Thanks. Jann

S   |   18 March 2011   |   Reply

I wanted to get some advice on how to earn trust. I searched on the internet and I found your post. I am a Chinese person who has lived in the UK for near 6 years.
I am always on time, I honor my promises, and do my best to meet deadlines, when I can’t meet it, I would explain and agree a new deadline. I like to be prepared. I don’t gossip. I admit it when I don’t know and I ask for advice, I admit it when I have made a mistake and I will correct it and learn not to make it again. I just got a new job and I am still on probationary period. End of this month it is the end of my probationary period, I am preparing for my review and objectives.
I am working very hard. I take my job very seriously. I really enjoy what I do. There are a couple of things that worries me at the moment. It may be that I am just over sensitive but I would rather find a way of solving it than bottling it up.
My line manager A seems to be very satisfied with what I am doing, and she praises me a lot, which makes me more inspired and want to do a good job, a better job. A’s line manager is B, I could sense from the communications from B that I need to work harder to earn his trust that I can do my job, I may make mistakes but I am willing to learn and be better.
For some reason there are little things that B would double check with other line managers like I am making it up. For example, I sent him an email asking for clarification of something, I had checked with Manager C, as I work very closely with C, and it is C’s area. I was clear for most of the things but a couple of things we were not clear, so C advised me to check with B. As it is related to a very senior person and I do not want to make any mistakes, so I would rather ask than assuming things. So I asked. B then asked C if he was aware of this and if I had checked with C, to which C said yes. B also said to A that he was worried that I need more supervision, which is completely fine as I am still learning my job, and I would be very happy for any support, but I also need trust to get on with my job, and I want to do better to earn the trust.
B has been checking on a number of things, which has made me very worried. There are a couple of other occasions I had checked with C and was advised by C that I should ask B, B then said I should ask C instead of him. He would check if I had spoken to C. I am very worried as I don’t think he needed to ask C if I had checked with C. I think there is a lack of trust. I wish to improve this. I am conscious he may think I am not native English, so I may not understand what he says. I know this, although I have lived in this country for 6 years, but I am still a foreigner, I still have a lot to learn and I am willing to learn. On the other hand, I need to find a way of letting him aware that I have a MA degree and I have worked in this country for 6 years, I have observed and learnt a lot in the last 6 years the English style of communication, there is Chinese in me and some of them I can never change and I do not want to lose it, but I am willing to adapt to the English way when necessary. But how can I make him understand that? I need to find a way of earning his trust. It is not just because he is my line manager’s boss and his opinion counts, also because I want to work in a trusted environment and I want to work happily. I love my job, this seems to be a little thing, but it really bothers me. I really need some expert advice. I look forward to your reply. Thank you so much!

Susan Mazza   |   28 March 2011   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your dilemma S. Here are a few things to consider.

When it comes assessing trust it is helpful to get as specific as possible. Consider your interactions with B and C independently and ask yourself these questions:

Do they believe you are sincerely committed to doing a great job? (My guess would be yes – anyone who would take the time you have to search for support and write the comment you did is clearly someone who is sincerely committed to doing great work and building great relationships. But don’t base your response to what I say or how you feel but rather how you think they perceive you.)

Do you think they trust your reliability – have you consistently kept your commitments to them? Keep in mind that not delivering as promised with a really good reason does not build trust in your reliability.

Do you think there may be some specific area of your competence they are not confident in?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions or are unsure this could identify some specific conversations you could initiate to help you understand how you are perceived and what you can do to address any gaps in their trust in you.

Have you talked with your manager about your concerns about how well you are trusted by them and others? That would be an excellent place to start.

It is also possible that you are caught in the middle of a trust issue between A and B, or either A and B and C, or your department vs. C’s department, etc.. Ask questions of those you work with to learn more about the history of the relationships But a word of caution – use these to inform you about what might be going on rather than accepting what anyone says as “the truth”.

One of the most difficult things to perceive when you work in an environment that is not your native language or culture is the context. There are many unwritten rules that govern how things are done in every organization and often we discover them when we unwittingly break them. So you have to learn to pay as much attention to the content of what you are doing as you do to the context in which you are doing them if you want to build trust in your relationships.

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