Some time ago, I wrote an Inc. column on the topic of trust. In the last few months, that column has started to get renewed attention. I wonder sometimes why an old column will experience this sort of sudden rush of new life. However, in the current political climate, with fake news being the most popular moniker of the past three years, I'm hardly surprised. So, I wanted to revisit the topic of trust and what creates it.
What Is Trust?
Trust is one of those perennial topics that resurfaces regularly. But defining trust isn't all that easy. We typically think of trust as a simple function of how often someone lies. A 2015 study of 1,000 people found that 60 percent of the participants did not lie when asked how many times per day they lie. So, it would appear that most of us are pretty honest and trustworthy, right? However, when the same 60 percent were asked if they had lied in the past week, 92 percent said that they had. Another study of 2,980 individuals, in the U.S. and the U.K., found that there is a whole category of lies that we feel is entirely justified, from calling in sick to work (when you're not) to telling your spouse those painted on jeans don't look at all tight.
It would appear that our relationship with lying is complex, and perhaps one we don't fully understand in an objective way. So, what's the deal, are we all faking it?
Trust is much more complex than the small lies we all tell in an effort to avoid the more complex explanation of the truth. When someone asks you how you are, it's likely you'll say "fine" even if your life is a mess, because fine is much easier than the narrative needed to support "My life really sucks right about now, thanks for asking. Sit down for the next 20 minutes while I explain."
"Simply put, trust is an output not an input."
With the exception of blatantly deceptive or malicious lies, intended to hide something devious, unethical, or illegal, most of us accept that there is always some degree of omission, hyperbole, or inconsequential avoidance of the truth in any conversation. And then there's always the issue of there not necessarily being just one truth, but rather perspectives from which the truth looks very different.
I've known many people who are prone to exaggeration or with whom I've disagreed on fundamental issues, and yet I can say without equivocation that I trusted them. That begs the question: Why?
In Me I Trust
To answer that question, you have to stop thinking of trust as something you inject into a relationship but rather see it as the outcome of other, deeper factors. Simply put, trust is an output not an input.
My good friend Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence, has done 30 years of research in the area of trust and how leaders create it and undermine it. According to Judith, when you're meeting someone for the first time, it takes just 0.7 seconds to make an initial determination of how trustworthy they are.
As insane as that sounds, think of your own experiences when meeting someone for the first time, or, better yet, pay attention the next time you do. There is an instant assessment that we make based on myriad small gestures, micro expressions, body language, intonation, posture, and countless other things that we are barely, if at all, cognizant of.
Judith's research has shown that much of the initial and near-term trustworthiness we infer comes from how much like us we believe that other person to be. If we sense that there is something in them that seems reflective of us or that mirrors us, then we start from an initial foundation of trust. If they are unlike us, we then start with an initial foundation of distrust.
We've all been in relationships where the chemistry seems off the charts and in others where there appears to be no basis for a common connection. How long does it take you to figure that out? Probably not long. Evolution has wired us to gravitate towards the safety of the familiar rather than the risk of the unfamiliar. The elusive thing we call chemistry is really just the degree to which two people have a shared view that each one reflects the other. From that initial sense of self, we infer other elements of trust, such as shared values, ethics, beliefs, and viewpoints.
However, that still doesn't fully explain trust, since we can all think of people who are very dissimilar from ourselves and yet we still trust them.
So, back to the initial question, "What is the foundation of trust?"
To understand that we need to peel back even further, to the very core of what fuels and sustains trust.
"Would you rather deal with an inconvenient truth or a convenient fiction?"
Brené Brown, a research professor from the University of Houston, calls it the power of vulnerability. What Brené's findings tell us is that it is only through the courage and strength to open up and express vulnerability that we ultimately connect with people on the deepest level--the level where loyalty and commitment form.
In many ways, this is the complete opposite of what we've been led to believe in the popular mythology of a tough leader who keeps his or her cards close to the vest, revealing little of their own weaknesses. That's the furthest thing from vulnerability, which exposes your flaws and failings.
That societal prototype of what a leader should be confuses toughness with a lack of transparency and fear with loyalty.
In my experience, both as a leader and in watching countless other leaders, what I have found is that toughness is the result of being able to deal with and survive the scrutiny of transparency, and loyalty is what you earn from others when they trust that you are fully exposing yourself and your agenda.
Leaders, or for that matter people in general, who are opaque make it difficult for others to connect with them and almost never earn the loyalty of others. They engender distrust and create the perception of a hidden agenda. These leaders can ultimately lead only through fear and intimidation. That may work for a while, but good luck trying to sustain it. And whatever loyalty seems to exist is only being feigned by those who are dependent on these leaders until they can find a reason, any reason, to go elsewhere.
The One Thing Is...
So, have you figured it out yet, the one thing? It's transparency. Transparency is at the heart of every effective relationship, team, and organization. In its absence, what's left is the white space of uncertainty and doubt. We build our own narratives that often play to our worst fears. The Dalai Lama summed it up best: "A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity."
Ray Dalio, one the world's most successful hedge fund managers and author of the wildly successful book Principles, calls it "radical transparency." This is the sort of transparency that puts a leader under the bright lights 24/7. In these cases, you can't count on position or status to hide from scrutiny that exposes your flaws and failings. You need to own them and be accountable for them.
Jeff Bezos has emphasized the critical importance of transparency as a cornerstone of Amazon's culture and its relationships with customers. In meetings, Bezos opts for raw and unfiltered communication, even banning often-obfuscating PowerPoint presentations. Coincidentally, the show that put Amazon on the map for original content creation in 2014 was called, that's right, Transparent.
It all sounds wonderful, but let's be clear about transparency: It is brutal. Whenever you choose the path of transparency, you are creating more work for yourself in the short term. I don't care if it's with your spouse or partner, your employees, or your board, transparency requires you to be ready to take accountability and to explain yourself.
Hell, it's so much easier to just ensconce yourself in the cloak of status and power, right? Good luck creating trust with that strategy. It's why I've always taken the doors off of every office in the companies I've built. You're cringing, I can tell. Would you rather deal with an inconvenient truth or a convenient fiction? Trust or distrust? Loyalty or insecurity?
Transparency is the superglue of every great relationship; it's the bedrock of trust, loyalty, and commitment for every great team; and, ultimately, it's the one thing that you can never fake.