Truth and Trust: They Go Together
By Stever Robbins
Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
Q: We've lost trust. How do I regain the
trust of my employees after six rounds of layoffs? How does
my organization regain the trust of the community after we
dumped toxic waste and covered it up? How does my management
team regain trust of each other after a nasty political battle?
A: Do you trust me? Good. The truth is,
you can't regain trust. Period. You doubt? Think hard about
the times you've been betrayed. Did the villain ever find
their way back into your heart? If you're like the thousands
I've asked, the answer is never. Trust can be gained once
and lost once. Once lost, it's lost forever.
So let's ask how we can keep trust from the start. It's really
quite easy; if you want to be trusted, simply be trustworthy.
The pressures will be great to act otherwise, and if you succumb,
well, you'll lose trust and you'll never get it back.
Tell The Truth
I've heard countless discussions about how customers, suppliers,
employees, shareholders, or communities can't be told the
truth. Maybe we believe that they can't handle the truth,
or that the truth will make us look bad, or maybe we don't
want to take responsibility for the consequences. So we "position"
our statement. We "frame it" carefully. We "massage
it." We use careful "spin." In other words,
Little white lies can work—they help life run smoothly.
But bigger lies compound. We end up committing beyond our
own moral comfort. This action is recognized in a social psychology
principle called "commitment and consistency." That
is, once we have taken a position, we are motivated by various
pressures to behave consistently with that position, even
if it is eventually proven wrong. Our ethical standards slip
a bit more each time we hold on to our original stand. Pretty
soon, our relationship with the truth is arms-length at best.
(For more on commitment and consistency, see the wonderful
book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,"
by Robert Cialdini.)
When people find out you've been lying to them, they know
your words can't be trusted. If it's your spouse, they may
give you a second chance. If it's your community, they may
tell you they're giving you a second chance, but don't count
Of course, there can be genuine reasons you can't tell the
truth. Sometimes you're legally bound to remain silent. Sometimes
you're negotiating and can't reveal your position. In those
cases consider saying, "I can't discuss that." People
won't like it, but they won't feel betrayed when the outcome
Keeping promises is an especially powerful form of telling
the truth. If you say you'll do something, do it. If you promise
you'll show up, be there. If you say you'll deliver high quality,
don't skimp. We all know business people who eagerly promise
anything to a customer or colleague rather than face their
disappointment. They rarely remember what was promised, which
is just as well because they couldn't have delivered. Over
time, their credibility drops so far that no one in their
company believes a word they say.
Your marketing material makes promises, by the way. As a
response to the low-carb craze, some cereal companies made
"low-sugar" cereals. Read the label carefully and
you'll discover they have as many carbs as high-sugar cereals.
If you're targeting health-conscious consumers, don't promise
them health and then deliver junk food. Keep your promises
and you'll keep trust.
Their Interests Before Yours
One powerful way to sustain trust is to put the interests
of others ahead of your own. When people know you're looking
out for them, they'll believe in your intentions even when
you have hard news to deliver or need them to put in heroic
In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins introduces the "Level
5 leader" who puts the needs of the organization ahead
of his or her own ego. Such leaders really inspire us to give
our all because they demonstrate by example that with personal
sacrifice we can achieve greater success as a group.
Putting others first means knowing their goals and concerns,
and helping them. Is a colleague a passionate baseball fan?
Give them your Red Sox tickets some afternoon, for no reason
at all. Is that the game where the Red Sox win the World Series?
Even better! You'll suffer real pain at giving up your tickets.
Public sacrifice, if it's real and visible, builds huge credibility
when it's in the service of others. And the sacrifice must
be real. Reducing your bonus from $2 million to $1.75 million
just doesn't count.
At its core, people trust you when they know you're safe to
deal with. They observe how you treat them and others. Do
the right thing in all your dealings and people will get it.
They'll know you're trustworthy.
If you get a reputation for taking advantage of others, however,
even people whom you have treated well can start to doubt.
One CEO wrote articles trumpeting his ethical behavior. Employees
knew otherwise; they'd seen him cheat distributors and shirk
on his commitments to his partners. So the more the CEO crowed,
the more the grapevine passed anonymous notes highlighting
Changing Players to Gain Trust
Trust isn't one-way, of course—trust happens between
two people, or between a person and an organization. You can
trust a person while distrusting their organization. I love
my trusted bank manager; she fixes my problems even when I
feel like the bank is hell-bent on alienating me at every
opportunity. (They charge how much for a bounced check?)
You can trust an organization while distrusting its people.
Think politics. We can trust our country's integrity even
when individual politicians make our stomachs crawl.
In business, one bad manager rarely destroys trust in the
entire company. But several bad managers, armed with policies
that clearly treat people as disposable implements, can destroy
trust in an entire organization.
At that point, bringing in a new management team that takes
clear, visible action might have a chance of rebuilding trust.
These actions will be hampered because employees have learned
to distrust the organization as a whole. But at least the
new leaders will have a chance to gain one-on-one trust and
translate that into the organizational changes needed to build
Is This Really Necessary?
I must confess that this article has been hard to write. "Do
the right thing," "Treat people with respect,"
"Don't lie." Do these things really need to be said
to adults? Apparently so. As businesspeople, we're not trustworthy.
The June 2002 Conference Board Commissions on Public Trust
and Private Enterprise Report found that somewhere between
37 percent and 76 percent of employees "observed misconduct
they believe could result in significant loss of public trust
if it were to become known." Of course, the employees
are the public, so public trust is losing on an ongoing basis.
It's up to us to fix the situation. We need to regain the
public's trust, which means we need to regain our trust in
each other. And it will only happen if we become the most
trustworthy people we can become.
Challenge This Week
Pay attention to how often you tell the truth, how often you
make decisions as if other people (customers, employees, suppliers)
don't matter, and how often you put the well-being of others
ahead of your own. Then ask yourself: Am I someone I would
Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business School Working
Knowledge, April 2005.
Stever Robbins is founder and president of LeadershipDecisionworks,
a consulting firm that helps companies develop leadership
and organizational strategies to sustain growth and productivity
over time. You can find more of his articles at http://LeadershipDecisionworks.com.
He is the author of It Takes a Lot More than Attitude to Lead
a Stellar Organization.