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In Business and in Life, Whom Should You Trust?

The devil is in the details.

Photo courtesy of Yuri Catalano via Pexels

It may be suggested that the most rewarding business relationships, as well as personal relationships, are built upon a foundation of trust. So, what is trust? Trust may be thought of as a belief in the truthfulness and reliability of a person, organization or institution. The strongest and most enduring relationships of any kind are virtually defined by trust. For children, trust comes easily. But for adults, trust usually takes time to develop, especially if one’s trust has ever been betrayed. We remember the admonition of Max Ehrmann, who, in his Desiderata, asserted, “Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.”

So, is there any simple way to avoid the pain of violated trust other than not ever trusting? No, but there is a potential “early warning” mechanism.

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We are taught that to be truly happy in life, we must learn to trust others. We are told that even the best business contracts cannot protect us against all forms of skullduggery. So, sometimes reluctantly, we let down our guard and we trust. We have made ourselves vulnerable to another person. We believe this person accepts us, believes in us and “has our back.” Then, the unthinkable happens. Our trust is betrayed. Betrayal is treachery, deception and violated trust. It can appear as a broken promise, duplicity, lies, sexual affairs. Betrayal can even consist of the perceived failure to provide protection. Violated trust is painful because we are physiologically “hardwired” to seek and create trusting relationships. Thus, when one experiences a sense of betrayal, it is sometimes described as a physical hurt or injury. Psychologically, it fuels the assumption that the world is a dangerous place wherein one can never let down one’s guard. The injury is so great that some people seem to never recover.

I was lucky to have studied with two of the world’s leading experts in human behavior. Although their disciplines were different and their universities were separated by thousands of miles, the conclusions they reached about human behavior were the same. While there are no guarantees in life, as we scan the world searching for people we can trust, learn to focus on observing reliability. Reliability may be thought of as consistency across situations. It has been said past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. This is generally true, but not ironclad. People certainly can change. That said, people who exhibit reliable patterns of honesty and integrity are relatively good candidates in whom you might invest your trust. And vice versa.

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The foregoing conclusions may seem obvious. But, observing others over a long period of time and across many different situations to determine trustworthiness is not always practical. So here is a remarkably powerful shortcut, which I also learned from my mentors. When you see someone acting in some egregious manner, even out of character, ask yourself one simple question: “What kind of person behaves that way?” Then answer your own question three different ways: 1) the best possible answer regarding trustworthiness and supportiveness, 2) the worst possible answer and 3) the most likely answer. Seems simple, right? Not so fast! The human brain is designed to accept as true the easiest answer and that which rests upon the least number of assumptions (Occam’s Razor), not necessarily the answer most likely to be correct. That explains a lot, right? But I digress. More specifically, we have a cognitive bias to ignore anomalies or inconsistencies as we observe the behavior of others. Compellingly efficient as it may be, to do so leads to a mistake up to 75 percent of the time.

When deciding to trust, or not, scrutinize the actions of others and focus not only on consistent patterns of behavior, but even more importantly, focus on the egregious out-of-character exceptions.

In closing, I am reminded of a segment in the hit movie Jersey Boys which underscores the power and desirability of trusting relationships. The character that plays bandmember and songwriter Bob Gaudio turns to the character playing lead singer Frankie Valli and proposes a business agreement for royalty sharing. When Valli agrees to the proposal, Gaudio indicates he will ask a lawyer to draw up a contract. Valli interrupts and says, “You want to do this thing? Then we do it. You want a contract?” Valli then offers a handshake. “Here…a Jersey contract.” In an NPR radio interview almost 50 years later, Gaudio affirmed the enduring viability of the “Jersey contract”…a contract based on trust.

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