Are You Trustworthy?
Unlike apples and peaches, trust doesn’t grow on trees. A reputation for being worthy of peoples’ trust has to be built and developed through a consistent, mindful pattern of behavior.
In a handful of relationships, trust is inherited, such as in a happy family setting. Young children start life by trusting in their parents and other close relatives. Small town folk who move to the big city are relatively open to trusting people from the old neighborhood. Likewise with classmates.
Apart from a few examples like those, trust is mostly earned.
Although trust is earned slowly, it can be destroyed very quickly. Once broken, it’s difficult to repair. Even super glue doesn’t seem to work for putting trust back in place.
In periods of very rapid change, volatility and ambiguity, trust is subjected to a stress test. We tend to become more cautious and skeptical about trusting others. Ironically, these are times when trust can be an even bigger asset for survival and adaptation.
Great leaders possess the ability to face ambiguity fearlessly, but they need the support of capable people who trust them, and vice versa.
Brand experts have analytical techniques for evaluating the monetary value of corporate reputation and brands. I’ve never heard of any such metrics for putting a value on an individual’s trustworthiness.
It’s unwise to underestimate the value of being considered trustworthy. I’ve often heard business executives warn against doing business with “so-and-so” because of trust issues. I’ve never heard similar warnings because of “so-and-so’s” SAT or GMAT scores.
Our education system’s emphasis on test scores, in other words, is not necessarily a realistic reflection of the world we face after we finish the formal education process. Test scores are relatively important while we’re young.
Past this stage in life, however, a reputation for being trustworthy is an even more powerful differentiator and may be a better predictor of success in the long run.
Have you ever bought a life insurance policy from someone you didn’t trust? Not very likely, even if they passed the relevant professional exam for financial planners.
Have you ever heard of a great sports team whose team members didn’t trust each other, or their coach? I don’t think so. Low levels of mutual trust have a corrosive effect on teamwork.
Perceptions about someone’s trustworthiness are somewhat subjective. They are capable of being distorted, exaggerated by friends, or willfully damaged by rivals. Over time, however, one’s track record is established and can be checked by interested parties (potential employers, business partners, etc.). Having a sub-par reputation for trustworthiness will close off a lot of opportunities, including some which are invisible to you.
It’s easy to underestimate just how far our reputation can spread, reaching out to places and people we don’t know. Just because we don’t know them doesn’t mean they can’t find out about us. That can be good news, or bad news, depending on how we behave.
Cultivating a reputation for trustworthiness includes delivering on promises, being accountable when you’ve erred, taking honesty on board as a core value, and being an “honest broker” even when bad news needs to be delivered.
On a personal level, this is an important strategic decision, rather than a tactical one — just as it is with companies and brands.
Trust is heavily intertwined with a society’s cultural norms. Attitudes toward acceptable behaviors with regards to trust vary from place to place and time to time.
They also vary by job type and profession. For example, how many of us could quickly name 10 trustworthy politicians in any country?
I’ve had Chinese friends warn me against hiring people from certain parts of China because people from there tend to be tricky, and generally not trustworthy. That struck me as a bit extreme, so my friends from Hubei and Dongbei can relax. I didn’t take that advice to heart.
I’ve also had Chinese friends warn me against being too trusting in general, because in their estimation there’s too great a risk of being “burned” during this rather wild phase of China’s development. That struck me as good advice.
As mentioned earlier, Chinese people are more trusting of people from their home town. This is especially true of people from rural areas and smaller cities. Such loyal bonds are perceived as strong enough that management may purposely avoid putting too many people from the same home town in the same department, especially where finance is involved.
Ten or more years ago, a trust deficit in society was widely discussed as a potentially serious impediment to the future development of e-commerce in China. That’s ancient history and seems almost laughable now, but it demonstrates how quickly things can change.
The big success stories in e-commerce in China — or elsewhere — are dependent on companies earning the trust of consumers. That means first earning the trust, and then continuing to deliver on the promises.
In most businesses, repeat sales and returning customers are the gold standard of success. This depends on a solid foundation of trust, which is an integral part of corporate and brand reputation.
The same is true for individuals. Personal and professional reputation is an enormously valuable asset.
Some younger readers in China may think that this is all very “foreign” and not very relevant to large parts of Chinese society today.
They may think that being considered trustworthy is not that important to their ultimate success. I’d suggest they revisit this question in 20 years to see what their experience has taught them.
My advice would be to take aim at cultivating a reputation for being trustworthy. The underlying values are universal, and they are common denominators among successful leaders in business, sports and many other fields, in China and around the globe.
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