Some years ago, a friend and I were waiting at a bus stop. The bus driver pulled up and stepped out of the bus to take a break. It was winter, so he left the door open so that people could get on--trusting that we would all pay our fares, which we all did.

After a few moments, he got back on and pulled away. "Excuse me," said one of the passengers, "Is this the day the fare goes up by ten cents?"

"Yes it is," he said. And so every passenger on that bus, including my boyfriend and me, got up to put an extra dime into the box.

The Power of Trust

I've seen the same sort of thing again and again. Few things are as powerful as giving people your trust. It's a vitally important lesson for anyone running a business because it's so easy to get this wrong. If you trust people who work for you and they rip you off, or share inside information, or otherwise deceive you, you'll feel like a fool. People will call you naive. Most of us desperately want to avoid having that happen, so we try to outsmart anyone who might try to "get over" on us.

That may seem wise, but it doesn't lead anywhere good. Another friend of mine had a business selling computer parts and shipping them all over the country. He employed a small team of customer service people who answered phones, kept track of orders, and handled returns as necessary. Although there were only five employees, he instituted a sign-in, sign-out policy to keep track of them. When he learned that some were spending some signed-in time making personal calls or eating meals in the break room, he was furious, and began watching them closely. Every time I saw my friend for dinner, the conversation would revolve around how lazy his employees were.

Though the company's revenues were impressive, my friend eventually had enough. He fired everyone, sold the business, and went to work for a large corporation instead. Trusting people can cost you, but not trusting them can cost you even more.

Why It Could Be Your Secret Sauce

My new hero when it comes to trust is Bobby Harris, CEO of BlueGrace Logistics. Harris and the rest of his executive team temporarily switched seats with the company's cubicle dwellers, and when Harris gave his IT maintenance guy his own office, he resisted all temptation to lock up or hide important files. It sent a powerful message, he says. "You're treating a professional like a professional. If you give someone an office with a door, you trust him. And if you don't trust someone to be alone in your office, you shouldn't employe that person."

BlueGrace has a tradition of providing beer for employees on Friday evenings. "People ask if I'm concerned about liability," Harris says. "But these are adults and I trust them to be responsible." I can't attest to whether all BlueGrace employees are trustworthy, but the company's success is hard to argue with. Begun in 2009--hardly an auspicious moment to launch a new venture--BlueGrace achieved $80 million in annual sales within four years. It started offering franchises about two years ago, and has 26 franchises so far, with more coming on all the time.

"People ask me what the secret sauce is that makes the company so successful," Harris says. "Trust is the secret sauce. The biggest thing you can do is trust people."