It seems like no one trusts anyone today. Have you recently asked yourself if you are trustworthy?

This week on Halloween, my colleague, Marcia, told me how she was listening to the radio and the DJs were focused on how we should start “tricking” little kids. They recommended we suck out the peanut butter in Reese’s peanut butter cups and replace it with spicy, hot sauce. While funny to older teenagers and 20-year-olds, I’m sure, this will not build trust in little kids.

Today trustworthiness seems to be a fading attribute even as everything we read about leadership and teams tells us trust is the foundation, the glue, that holds everything worthwhile together.

The word trustworthy is an adjective or when describing a person, an attribute. And whether this is an attribute attached to you or not depends on your behavior. In a moment, I’ll share a personal experience of when a trustworthy person changed my life.

When Do I Know I Can Trust Someone. As I thought about trust today I wondered how I would respond if someone asked, “Steve, when do you know you can trust someone?”

Photo by Nathan Anderson

I think it is important for each of us to remember what they taught me in Boy Scouts – trust must be earned. Once you earn it, you become trustworthy. Here are five behaviors that help me decide whether someone is trustworthy.

  1. I see the person is kind to children and others who are in vulnerable situations. I think this behavior gives me insight into a person’s heart, which is where I think trustworthiness starts. A good example of someone who demonstrated this was General Colin Powell, who I wrote about in my article Can You Lead with Kindness and Get Results?
  2. I see the person is truthful with him/herself. The person lets her/himself be vulnerable to feedback about their own weaknesses. Patrick Lencioni in his terrific book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team writes about how no team can be successful without a foundation of trust. And his important point here is that we humans have a need to be invulnerable and so we are uncomfortable exposing our weaknesses. When we hide them, we become less trustworthy. If you are wrestling with being honest with yourself I recommend the book Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute as well as a few supporting You-Tube videos under the same name.
  3. I see the person helps someone without expecting anything in return. The person is a natural giver and creates a giver culture. In one of my past articles about “givers and takers” I wrote about how Adam Grant described the giver culture – “In giver cultures, employees operate as the high-performing intelligence units do: helping others, sharing knowledge, offering mentoring, and making connections without expecting anything in return. Meanwhile, in taker cultures, the norm is to get as much as possible from others while contributing less in return. Employees help only when they expect the personal benefits to exceed the costs, as opposed to when the organizational benefits outweigh the personal costs.
  4. I see the person respectfully and fearlessly gives me feedback. If you remember my article Are You a Liar? you might recall I referenced Patrick Lencioni’s important point in his book The Advantage – “When you tell yourself you’re bad at holding people accountable because you don’t like hurting their feelings, you’re lying.” When we don’t give people truthful feedback we are actually trying to protect ourselves from the conflict and angst that might arise. When a person gives us feedback, we could realize this takes courage and are more likely to trust them even more.
  5. I see the person follow-through on a promise or commitment before being reminded. I think this is the most common behavior most of use to determine if someone is trustworthy. In my article Here, Lead this Established Team I highlighted how Michael Watkins has noted that trustworthiness is the most important characteristic people on teams look for in leaders. By trustworthiness he means the leader “Can be relied upon to be straight with you and to follow through on commitments.”

My Example – What Trustworthiness Looks Like. About 25 years ago when I was a consultant I made a proposal to an entrepreneurial businessman to provide strategic planning and organizational development consulting service. When I submitted my proposal, he told me he thought my price was a little high. I asked him what he thought a fair price was and he told me.

I then agreed to do the project and invoice him for his price. But I asked him for one favor – if when I invoiced him he thought I delivered greater value than he expected would he consider paying me my price? He smiled and said he would.

When I finished the project I invoiced him with his price – and I got a check in the mail for my price.

That’s what trustworthiness looks like to me.

The entrepreneur is Joe Leddy, the founder of Work Opportunities Unlimited, and as most of you know I am still associated with him and the Company today. Trustworthiness is still one of our foundational principles and drives our culture today.

While you and I might not be able to change the lack of trust in Washington and throughout the world, we can, stealing a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

What will you do to become more trustworthy? It could make all the difference.