First published in the Globe and Mail, May 30, 2003

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Trust me. I know what's good for you. Trust me. I'm telling the truth. So why don't you trust me? It's simple: Until it's earned, trust is just a word.

It's also an essential tool in building the fundamentals of a great business -- the linchpin that secures relationships with customers, colleagues and staff.

Admittedly, you probably think of yourself as trustworthy. But are you sure you're trusted? Trust, after all, depends on the perception of others, something we can't control completely.

However, there are elements to trust that become levers of influence, which, in turn, shape perceptions.

What are they? There are many, but these five offer a powerful head start to the vigilant user:

Consistency of Behaviour

Mistrust is often born in inconsistency.

Do you promise one thing and deliver another? Show up late for meetings? Forget appointments? Snap at colleagues, or employees, or clients? And then dismiss your erratic behaviour with comments like, "I haven't had my coffee this morning," or "I've had too much coffee this morning." Such excuses can stop us from addressing our inconsistent, sometimes rude, conduct. Indeed, in the extreme, they can mask passive-aggressive behaviour. How can anything but skeptical suspicion be the outcome of that? Interestingly, an occasional positive inconsistency -- such as a surprise reward for a good job -- will work to reinforce the trust.

Caring for Others

This contains two components worthy of attention: Sincere praise and genuine acceptance.

Sincere praise is wonderful food for the ego. For one thing, it carries an automatic feeling of polite civility. More importantly, it elevates esteem and creates the desire for others to achieve the goals before them.

Genuine acceptance, in its extreme, can be taken so far as accepting mistakes as another way to learn. Simple mistakes should neither be ridiculed, nor overplayed and taken out of context. We liberate others to take risks when we treat them as responsible adults and acknowledge their accomplishments.

Taking Risks with Others

If we risk wholeheartedly and blindly, we could be exploited. The world does, after all, have selfish and manipulative people. The alternative, not to risk, creates it's own kind of hazard. If we withhold our thoughts and feelings, we can fail to disclose our best personal traits. That limits the potential for mutual gains.

Risk, then, is a matter of good judgment and balance.

We should carefully assess the nature of short- and long-term relationships, examine our own fears and blind spots and assess other peoples willingness to bridge the gap of their emotional or financial vulnerability. How do we do that?

Ask questions that clarify: 'Let me repeat what I think you're saying.' 'Can I be clear about my interests?' 'How do you feel about this idea?' It's only in the harsh daylight of feedback that we can assess others willingness to invest, either emotionally or financially.

Equal Effort or Simple Equity

Even in a short-term relationship, we must perceive that equity exists if trust is to develop. There are classic examples of exploitation with carefully crafted legal documents that even though mutually agreed, play out with one-sided bias. If these agreements are not renegotiated with balance and attention to equal effort, senseless damage to integrity can follow.

Consider this example: Following the close of the sale of a significant business, the purchaser discovered that due diligence was inadequate. There was a large shortfall in earnings and because of the formula used to define the purchase price, a substantial overpayment. When the vendor partners learned of the problem, they renegotiated the final price to an equitable one. Trust -- and their reputation -- was worth more to them than the extra dollars they would deposit in the bank.

Responsible Behaviour

This element of trust is the polar opposite to manipulation and scapegoating. In the example above, the vendor partners made no excuses for the oversight. They turned a potentially embarrassing situation into a trustworthy one.

They put aside what was perhaps a legally defensible opportunity and chose to act responsibly. Their behaviour gave new meaning to "responsible in your actions, honour in your name."

If developing trust is hard work, damaging it is easy. Ignore any of the five elements and you could unravel the very relationships that keep your enterprise moving toward the fundamentals of success.

And if you think that stretching the demands of a relationship can be put right with a little charm or good humour, think again. While wit and humour are constructive in a trusting relationship, they merely exacerbate damaged trust.

According to U.S. psychologist and author Dennis Waitley's "five times" rule, damaged trust can only be fixed by exacting a five-fold effort. So it's well worth protecting trust where it exists and building it where it doesn't.

To determine whether you practise these elements of trust, ask yourself:
  • Is my behaviour predictable and consistent?

  • Do I care for others? Do I praise sincerely and accept other people worthy of my esteem?

  • Do I take risks with others? Do I carefully and honestly assess the potential for a double win?

  • Do I exact equity and give equal effort? Do I openly communicate with honesty? Do I listen with the intent of promoting equity?

  • Do I behave responsibly or am I quick to find fault with, or even blame others?

  • When trust is damaged, do I commit to a five-times effort to ensure that it's rebuilt?

By isolating these elements of trust, you'll master the use of a tool that builds relationships in your business and your life. You'll control important levers that transform perceptions. And you'll become the essence of trustworthy and trusted.

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