Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

stever 4-25-05: Truth and Trust: They Go Together

4/25/2005
Getting others to trust you and your abilities is easy, says Stever Robbins: Simply be trustworthy. If you lose trust, you'll never get it back.

QuestionWe've lost trust. How do I regain the trust of my employees after six rounds of layoffs? How does my organization regain the trust of the community after we dumped toxic waste and covered it up? How does my management team regain trust of each other after a nasty political battle?

AnswerDo you trust me? Good. The truth is, you can't regain trust. Period. You doubt? Think hard about the times you've been betrayed. Did the villain ever find their way back into your heart? If you're like the thousands I've asked, the answer is never. Trust can be gained once and lost once. Once lost, it's lost forever.

So let's ask how we can keep trust from the start. It's really quite easy; if you want to be trusted, simply be trustworthy. The pressures will be great to act otherwise, and if you succumb, well, you'll lose trust and you'll never get it back.

Tell the truth
I've heard countless discussions about how customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, or communities can't be told the truth. Maybe we believe that they can't handle the truth, or that the truth will make us look bad, or maybe we don't want to take responsibility for the consequences. So we "position" our statement. We "frame it" carefully. We "massage it." We use careful "spin." In other words, we lie.

Little white lies can work—they help life run smoothly. But bigger lies compound. We end up committing beyond our own moral comfort. This action is recognized in a social psychology principle called "commitment and consistency." That is, once we have taken a position, we are motivated by various pressures to behave consistently with that position, even if it is eventually proven wrong. Our ethical standards slip a bit more each time we hold on to our original stand. Pretty soon, our relationship with the truth is arms-length at best. (For more on commitment and consistency, see the wonderful book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini.)

When people find out you've been lying to them, they know your words can't be trusted. If it's your spouse, they may give you a second chance. If it's your community, they may tell you they're giving you a second chance, but don't count on it.

Of course, there can be genuine reasons you can't tell the truth. Sometimes you're legally bound to remain silent. Sometimes you're negotiating and can't reveal your position. In those cases consider saying, "I can't discuss that." People won't like it, but they won't feel betrayed when the outcome is revealed.

Trust can be gained once and lost once. Once lost, it's lost forever.

Keep promises
Keeping promises is an especially powerful form of telling the truth. If you say you'll do something, do it. If you promise you'll show up, be there. If you say you'll deliver high quality, don't skimp. We all know business people who eagerly promise anything to a customer or colleague rather than face their disappointment. They rarely remember what was promised, which is just as well because they couldn't have delivered. Over time, their credibility drops so far that no one in their company believes a word they say.

Your marketing material makes promises, by the way. As a response to the low-carb craze, some cereal companies made "low-sugar" cereals. Read the label carefully and you'll discover they have as many carbs as high-sugar cereals. If you're targeting health-conscious consumers, don't promise them health and then deliver junk food. Keep your promises and you'll keep trust.

Their interests before yours
One powerful way to sustain trust is to put the interests of others ahead of your own. When people know you're looking out for them, they'll believe in your intentions even when you have hard news to deliver or need them to put in heroic efforts.

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins introduces the "Level 5 leader" who puts the needs of the organization ahead of his or her own ego. Such leaders really inspire us to give our all because they demonstrate by example that with personal sacrifice we can achieve greater success as a group.

Putting others first means knowing their goals and concerns, and helping them. Is a colleague a passionate baseball fan? Give them your Red Sox tickets some afternoon, for no reason at all. Is that the game where the Red Sox win the World Series? Even better! You'll suffer real pain at giving up your tickets. Public sacrifice, if it's real and visible, builds huge credibility when it's in the service of others. And the sacrifice must be real. Reducing your bonus from $2 million to $1.75 million just doesn't count.

Behave ethically
At its core, people trust you when they know you're safe to deal with. They observe how you treat them and others. Do the right thing in all your dealings and people will get it. They'll know you're trustworthy.

If you get a reputation for taking advantage of others, however, even people whom you have treated well can start to doubt. One CEO wrote articles trumpeting his ethical behavior. Employees knew otherwise; they'd seen him cheat distributors and shirk on his commitments to his partners. So the more the CEO crowed, the more the grapevine passed anonymous notes highlighting his lies.

Changing players to gain trust
Trust isn't one-way, of course—trust happens between two people, or between a person and an organization. You can trust a person while distrusting their organization. I love my trusted bank manager; she fixes my problems even when I feel like the bank is hell-bent on alienating me at every opportunity. (They charge how much for a bounced check?)

You can trust an organization while distrusting its people. Think politics. We can trust our country's integrity even when individual politicians make our stomachs crawl.

In business, one bad manager rarely destroys trust in the entire company. But several bad managers, armed with policies that clearly treat people as disposable implements, can destroy trust in an entire organization.

At that point, bringing in a new management team that takes clear, visible action might have a chance of rebuilding trust. These actions will be hampered because employees have learned to distrust the organization as a whole. But at least the new leaders will have a chance to gain one-on-one trust and translate that into the organizational changes needed to build trust throughout.

Is this really necessary?
I must confess that this article has been hard to write. "Do the right thing," "Treat people with respect," "Don't lie." Do these things really need to be said to adults? Apparently so. As businesspeople, we're not trustworthy.

The June 2002 Conference Board Commissions on Public Trust and Private Enterprise Report found that somewhere between 37 percent and 76 percent of employees "observed misconduct they believe could result in significant loss of public trust if it were to become known." Of course, the employees are the public, so public trust is losing on an ongoing basis.

It's up to us to fix the situation. We need to regain the public's trust, which means we need to regain our trust in each other. And it will only happen if we become the most trustworthy people we can become.

Your action challenge this week
Pay attention to how often you tell the truth, how often you make decisions as if other people (customers, employees, suppliers) don't matter, and how often you put the well-being of others ahead of your own. Then ask yourself: Am I someone I would trust?

© 2005 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

Stever Robbins is founder and president of LeadershipDecisionworks, a consulting firm that helps companies develop leadership and organizational strategies to sustain growth and productivity over time. You can find more of his articles at http://LeadershipDecisionworks.com. He is the author of It Takes a Lot More than Attitude to Lead a Stellar Organization.