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Who Can You Really Trust?

“I simply can’t trust them,” he said with genuine disappointment in his voice.

When delving into the situation more, what this supply chain manager revealed was that the regular supplier of a vital part for his company’s most important product was unreliable. Sometimes they delivered on time. Other times there were significant delays with little communication from them.

As we explored the situation further with him, we asked a different question. “You say you can’t trust them, but it seems that what you’re really saying is that you can fully trust them to be unpredictable and very often uncommunicative.”

The supply chain manager laughed, in spite of himself. “Well, now that you put it that way, I suppose you’re correct. That’s exactly who we can trust them to be.”

Trust can be a thorny issue, in the office and at home. As the saying goes, “Once bitten, twice shy,” in other words, if we have a less than stellar experience with someone, we may justifiably feel that we can no longer trust them.

But as behavioral axiom states, “A person’s honesty is their consistency.” In other words, if someone has shown us a pattern of behavior (for example, unreliability—as in the case of the supply chain manager) then that is who we can count on them to be for now. And, if we expect them to suddenly be different, we’re setting them up for failure and ourselves up for disappointment.

This raises what we refer to as a “thriving challenge” because that potentially biased attitude seems to contradict our advocacy for eliminating bias and maintaining a mindset of 100% personal responsibility. How can we have a mindset of setting aside biases, while fully owning the results we create, and yet avoid getting burned again?

It’s likely that we’ve all experienced this kind disappointment and regret at some point. We’ve thrown “good money after bad” or we've dared to trust, to give someone a second chance, and it didn’t work out well.

But, as we explain in our book Thriving in Business and Life and its accompanying online course, we have to be careful here because research has shown that, without our realizing it, we can inappropriately continue to extend “trust” to someone as way of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. “See,” we tell ourselves, after they just let us down again. “I knew I couldn’t trust them.”

So, let’s elevate this conversation to another level and redefine trust.

Trust doesn’t actually relate to any particular kind of behavior . . . for instance being honorable or honest. It refers to dependability. Based on their past patterns, what can we count on someone to do or not do?

If, for instance, someone has been late for the last 20 meetings, you can trust them to be late for the next one. If someone doesn’t turn assignments in on time, you can trust them to continue doing that. Now they might surprise you and get it right once . . . and it might be sign of them attempting to change. It also might simply be an anomaly.

In fact, most people are generally trustworthy, in the sense that they tend to repeat behaviors. Said another way, “Any seemingly isolated incidents of behavior are actually part of a larger pattern of behavior.”

So, when we think there’s a trust issue, the real problem is we have not fully identified and come to terms with the larger pattern of behavior at play (like not following through on time, not delivering on promises, etc.).

A better question than, “Can I trust this person or not?” is “How can I trust this person to behave (based on past behavior and performance)?”

This doesn’t mean assuming the person will never change.

In fact, thriving leaders are always finding ways to inspire others and help them improve and hold themselves accountable. But this approach to trust is realistic . . . it deals with the way things are right now. And it means we can minimize the disappointment factor. When someone acts the way they dependably do, they aren’t letting us down, they are just repeating a habitual behavior.

This takes us back to the responsibility factor. When we assume 100% responsibility for ourselves, this includes being aware of the degree to which we count on others to follow through or get something accomplished. Taking real ownership for what we expect from others also enables us to meet people where they are.

As Ken Blanchard suggests in his approach to Situational Leadership, how we manage someone who is a capable, consistent performer, is very different than how we manage someone who has shown themselves to be undependable.

For instance, the points at which we want a person to check in with us, will be very different with someone who’s shown themselves to be unreliable versus someone who’s established a pattern of always getting things done well and on time.

If we happen to be the person who’s been demonstrating a pattern of undependable behavior, being fully accountable means staying alert for ways we can grow and improve. That includes becoming more accountable for the results we generate. This means that if we fall short on a promise, for instance, we acknowledge it, make adjustments to avoid a repeat performance, and round up an accountability partner to help us stay on track.

As we demonstrate this willingness to own the way in which we trust and generate trust and course correct for improvements, people learn who they can count on us to be and how they can count on us to show up. This enables us and others to contribute to an overall culture of dependability and excellence within our business, family, or community.

Your Thriving Breakthrough opportunity for the week:

Think of a situation where you have expected someone to be different than who they’ve demonstrated themselves to be at this point.

If you were to accept that this is where they are for now, how would you manage them differently?

Or . . .

Think of some situation where you have fallen short,

(being late for meetings or under-delivering on assignments are two simple examples),

and recognize that others probably now trust you to repeat those behaviors.

Take responsibility to change and surprise them with new behaviors, so they can learn to trust you in new ways.

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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