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On Trust

Trust is a stance toward another, or others, the presence of which is necessary to turn a group into a team, a town into a community or a corporation into a high-performing enterprise.  Trust is a precious form of social capital that enables resiliency in the face of challenge.  Deepening our understanding of trust – what it is, how to build it and what sustains it is the focus of this edition of the Kaleidoscope.

 When you say to someone “I trust you,” what exactly are you saying?  Conversely, when you look at a colleague at work and think, “I don’t trust him/her,” what leads you to say that?  These are statements about our overall evaluation of a person’s trustworthiness.

The most common understanding of this sort of trust or trusting is that we judge the other to be reliable in their behavior in a variety of life situations. We can count on them when the chips are down to come through. But is that all there is to it? Do you know of any instances in your own life where someone occasionally slips up, but still you trust them; whereas another fails once, and trust is broken? This points to a fundamental truth about trust.

It is not merely a tallying of reliability that compels you to say, “I trust you.”  I suggest that one key element of trust is that it is a declaration that one makes about another or others.  A declaration that they are trustworthy because you say they are.  Is it possible to misplace your trust, to declare and discover the other(s) were not trustworthy? You bet. Then you encounter the shadow of trust, betrayal.

The experience of being betrayed is extremely unpleasant and socially corrosive. Avoiding that experience leads many people to be cautious to trust or tentative in their trusting. When we feel betrayed, almost always we point accusingly at the betrayer; however, upon closer examination, we find, as the saying goes, three fingers pointing back at us. Student and teacher of community living, Dr. Victor Baranco, asserted that having been betrayed simply means we weren’t paying enough attention to the other to have seen the potential for betrayal at the outset. We may still choose to go forward and declare trust for the other, but not blindly.

One thing to which to pay attention, prior to declaring someone trustworthy, is whether there are shared goals and shared values and commitments. If I perceive that you and I are coming from the same place in terms of what we value and what we stand for, and/or we’re going for the same thing in terms of goals, this will shape my view of your behavior.  If that is the case, even if you are not behaving exactly as I would in a circumstance, I’m likely to continue to extend trust and give you the benefit of the doubt.

Another aspect of trust is more situational. Whether we should trust someone when they promise to do something specific depends first on whether we believe they are competent to do accomplish the promised result.  We also need to consider whether they are free from other constraints that might stop them, i.e., they have ten other promises to fulfill in the same time frame.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, are the twin matters of sincerity and honoring one’s word.  We will not trust someone if we perceive them to be inauthentic, or either intentionally or unconsciously insincere.

That’s an obvious case. Then there is the matter of whether someone is a person who honors their word. This requires further elaboration.

A person who honors their word is someone who, when they give their word, keeps it. They do what they promised to do and on time. Or, and this is the crucial point, if they cannot or will not keep their word, they will tell the person to whom they have given their word – in advance of the promised deadline – that they won’t deliver. They would also offer to make amends, if possible, for the difficulty their failure to keep their word  may have caused. No one can keep all their promises, but everyone can in most cases be in communication about what they will or won’t do. This is what it means to honor one’s word. A person whom you know to honor their word in this way is trustworthy in the matter of their promises.

These definitions and prerequisites for trust can be used as a template on how to build trust. I suggest the following practices or guidelines:

  • Develop a culture of honoring one’s word.
  • Before declaring trust, listen for the sincerity of declarations and promises.
  • Explore values, goals and commitments to discover whether they are genuinely shared.
  • Understand competence and availability before entrusting someone to do what they have promised or been asked to do.
  • And know, ultimately, the way to build trust is to be trustworthy yourself.

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