Trust – How You Can Build it and How I Erode it


Last week, I offered an exercise for your consideration in the form of two questions: What is it that you are/do that seems to engender trust in others? And what is it that you are/do that may diminish the trust that others have in you. I’ll share my thoughts with you about my sense of my own self. I’m just gonna talk about my trust diminishing behavior.

I know I am not always seen as trustworthy. By that, I mean that there is a gap between what people expect – including the expectations I explicitly and implicitly put out there – and what I deliver. Trust is formed in this zone of behavior, and of perception. When trust is lacking, it’s as if people have to walk gingerly. They don’t know what’s secure, whether they’ll crash through the ice, or hit some hidden obstacle. Things slow and become tentative. And here’s the main way that I think people are uncertain around me and get hesitant. My follow-through is just not always there.

It’s hard to admit this in front of 11,000 readers. But it’s true. Sometimes I stretch myself too thin. I get excited about too many ideas and too many projects. Or I over-commit to people, and leave somebody in the lurch, holding the bag. They bust their tail on something, but find out I lost interest in it, changed direction without telling them, or just have not finished my part. The result, as you can imagine, is that people get frustrated; they get tentative; and they don’t work as hard, because they’re not sure their work matters. Or, they quit on me, because I’ve lost credibility.

Kent Lineback and Linda Hill write about trust in their new book Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. They argue persuasively that people trust their bosses based on two things: competence and character. I think those two actually meet when it comes to trust. For instance, as I become more competent as a professional, I try to manage my tendency to over-extend myself and stay clear about my projects, commitments, and deadlines. And as I become more competent, I hope I can be trusted more. And it’s also a character issue: when I over-commit and don’t follow through, I let people down. At such times, I am out of integrity, functionally dishonest. I’m not trying to deceive, but my failure to be realistic has the effect that I do deceive people. If I see the character side and pursue integrity, I become more trustworthy.

One more note while I’m in the trust confessional. As with many things, my shadow side connects to my bright and gifted side. For it is the gifts of my deep love for others, and my love for new ideas (along with an inflated ego that would have me be all things for all people) that gets me in trouble, and sets me up to be unreliable.

So, if you want to build your own trustworthiness, focus on your competence at delivering, and focus on your character, in particular your total honesty with others. And if you think you’ve got those covered, I recommend that you look at your strengths and see what happens when you (inevitably) overplay them. Perhaps you’ll find your gifts and shadow in one of these descriptions:

  • Someone gifted with decisiveness, might not hear all the objections and thus be less trusted by those who felt unheard.
  • Someone who is gifted with rational precision may appear untrustworthy to more feeling types.
  • Someone who has the great talent of attending to every detail might be perceived with great suspicion by someone who feels the vision is getting lost.
  • Someone who takes time with every customer no matter what, may be considered untrustworthy by his fellow workers who are left to pick up the slack.
  • A boss who takes great care not to offend, may leave things so vague that others are totally unsure what path she wants them to take.

If we want to lead – with or without authority – it behooves us to know how we build – and often unwittingly – erode trust. For trust is essential to

Lead with your best self.


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  • Dan,

    I have been focusing on Trust with a number of my colleagues for the past year.

    I recommend that you add “The Speed of Trust”, by Stephen M.R. Covey to your list of must haves on this issue. Covey maintains that “Trust Is The One Thing That Changes Everything.”

    The TIP Lady

  • Dan,

    Great RFL. Trust is the key to the kingdom. Good way to build trust is to take care not to send mixed messages. Would help to define trust. There are people I know that I can trust to mess things up. Integrity is doing what you say you will do. Easy to lose integrity, harder to build it once it has been eroded.


  • Dan,

    From a manager’s (leader) perspective I think competency is possibly one of several products of trust. If a leader or a manager can establish trust with his or her group because others recognize the leader/manager is someone with character and ethics then the team the leader is managing will produce the effort needed as it strives to meet goals and objectives and accomplish the mission of the work unit.


  • Dan,

    I’m sure there are plenty of times when your leadership is consistently predictable and boring. And I’m sure there’s a spike of relief and productivity in your groups, followed by a hush of realization: “he’s stopped zipping around”. If you *weren’t* doing that — and if it’s a trademark trait like you say — then people would disengage just as readily as when you’d zip around and leave them wondering. I think you totally figured it out, though, that the extremes are just icing on the cake, and that people really take after others based on the balance of the person’s qualities.

    Competence isn’t always easily demonstrated, either: it takes the right energy, focus, opportunity, and intelligence on the leader’s behalf, but the people waiting to see it proven also have to be exerting enormous amounts of energy: patience, understanding, comprehension, attention, gobs of stuff that between the leader and the group all stick together and form the marshmallow-y “idea” thing that you’re all looking around for.

    As long as everybody is pretty sure they’re having a productive and healthy time, even a good time — and that the things mentioned are in reserve: energy; focus; opportunity; intelligence; patience; understanding; comprehension; attention — then the group and leader have every reason to believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

    All of which takes trust, sure: trust in self-ability. It’s not so odd to be left standing alone fulfilling the analogy while the rest of the group moved on to some other metaphor, and it can present a unique opportunity. That person has two immediate choices and those aren’t necessarily all that’s available: one, they could drop the ball and catch up with the tour group; or, two, they could figure out a alternative use for the air pressure in the ball. Am I right? In one sense, they could self-criticise easily like this: “if this partially completed goal has been left-behind, I should bring what resources are recoverable along and get back with the group”, and in another: “if what I am in the middle of doing is useful to begin with, then I can utilize it, otherwise it’s worthwhile abandoning”. Between those two small possibilities, which one involves giving up on one’s self or giving up on the leader? Only if the person loses self-interest or starts taking after self-doubt.

    — Gabriel Arthur Petrie

  • This article was one of the most powerful ones you’ve written. It gave me another dimension in thinking about trust. It spoke to me and has given me much to think about. I hope I will make some changes from reading this. Thank you for your good work!

  • Dan,
    Sorry to do this again, but I resent my e-mail and followed up with another asking about the first and haven’t heard anything. Did you get these?

  • It seems to me that sometimes trust is established and the leader gives a proven subordinate enough room to hang themselves. Then, when some snafu happens, the leader or manager may be shocked and overreact out of fear that they placed too much authority in the individual. As a result, they hesitate to do any in-depth, complete factfinding. A full examination of the facts may trace the underlying cause to a lack of training, lack of direction, lack of contact, lack of communication–all of which falls to some extent into the Manager’s area of responsibility.

    Once trust is broken because a snafu happened, it’s too easy for all parties to identify some convenient scapegoat. Once trust is broken–no matter how skimpy or non-existent is evidence that one person is to blame–the mistrust continues. Without trust, all communications are suspect, all motivations and competence questioned. Each contact with the scapegoat could be an uncomfortable reminder of the manager’s own inadequacies. Better, it may seem to the manager, to “kill the messenger” rather than face this evidence of an embarassing failiure every day…

    I’ve seen instances where everyone seems to have overreacted in lunatic / full moon phase ways, with draconian consequences even though, even when, an individual may have been utterly reliable and well-intentioned for years but in this one case of one event, where there was a miscommunication with negative consequences, an individual’s entire career is ruined.

    A wise counselor once told me, “Where there is trust (relationship), everything is possible. Without it, nothing is possible.” I believe that.

    One of the best offices I ever worked in was where everyone recognized that sometimes, bad things happen. When they did, each member of the team asked and honestly answered the question “What did I do to contribute to this problem?” Then we all made a commitment to not do that again. Behaviors changed and trust was re-established, along with a sense of security that our contribution continued to be valued.

    It was heavenly! I wish that practice were broadly available in every workplace. It would probably yield a far lower turnover, with far greater productivity, and far less time and money spent in selecting and training new staff… because miscommunications will continue to happen, no matter how good / wonderful all staff are, no matter how competent and well intentioned.

    The fact is, sometimes bad things happen. It’s not because any one person is bad or wrong. The whole event could be framed as an opportunity to improve operations, not defensively oversimplify in order to escape responsibility.

    Does this make sense? Am I the only one who sees this?

    This is a very important topic, Dan. Thanks for raising it. As for your self-disclosure, someone like you may need a trusted advisor to challenge you at times, perhaps by asking, “Do you really think you can write and promote a book, keep your blog going, be a good partner and parent, plan a cross-city move, followed by a cross-state move, and learn a new job–all perfectly–within the same few months? Really? How about a little reality check here?”

    The other thing is that people who know you, people who’ve worked with you, eventually notice that at times you bite off more than you can really chew. They may not have your strong commitment to get so many jobs done in a timely and perfect manner. They may know, from past practice, that if all goals are not fully and perfectly achieved within a given time frame, that you’ll cut them a little slack and notice that you were laying a very heavy burden on them, and hopefully forgive them, even appreciate them, for giving an impossible task their best shot.

    I’m not saying that to excuse you, just point out the value of a trusted advisor.

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