Be Credible To Build Trust

by Geof Lory, PMP

In the first article of this series on trust, "Vulnerability based Trust," the basic elements of trust were discussed with a brief introduction to earning and extending trust. That article defined the elements of trust from the perspective of the person doing the trusting. In this article I will dive more deeply into understanding how people decide whether we are credible and therefore trustworthy.

Simply stated, we find someone credible, and therefore potentially worthy of our trust, if we are comfortable with who they are (character) and what we believe they will do (competence). Trust is a combination of Character and Competence; our assessment of someone's character colors our assessment of their competency. According to Steven M. R. Covey's latest book, The Speed of Trust, these decisions—and thus our decision whether or not to trust someone—begin with our evaluation of the 4 Cores of Credibility:

  • Intent: the intrinsic desire to do something
  • Integrity: the conscious willingness to put forth the effort to act on the intent
  • Capabilities: abilities or potential abilities
  • Results: demonstrated outcomes

Character assessments are based on evaluations of intent and integrity. When you believe someone's intent is good, and their actions are consistent with that intent, you determine they are a person of good character and you will be inclined to trust them. But intent is a very difficult thing to assess, especially when you have little history or experience to work from. So, in most new situations we infer intent through a complex combination of facts, words and observations processed through our prejudices, situational circumstances and assumptions. It is far from a scientific analysis and predominantly subjective and unconscious.

This is where the second core, integrity, comes in. Integrity is "walking the talk." In spite of what we say our intent is, our actions speak louder than our words. When our actions are consistent with what we say, especially over a period of time, the intent is reinforced and the assessment of character positively amplified. While intent is the desire to do something, integrity is the conscious willingness to put forth the effort to act on that intent. Intent without integrity is just wishful lip service: an unkept New Years resolution.

Since intent and integrity define a person's character, we decide that we are dealing with a person of good character when we understand their intent as honorable and see actions consistent with that intent.

Character is the personal minimum requirement for trust, because it is the filter through which competency is assessed. As the personal side of trust, it is non-situational. Since character is the constant in the trust equation, it should be no surprise that violations of character are the most offensive breaches of trust. When a person's character is in question, it creates an obstacle to trust that is almost impossible to overcome.

Competency is a lot easier to measure and assess: therefore we are more comfortable using this cognitively as the primary measure of trustworthiness. Competency is a combination of abilities or potential abilities (capabilities), and demonstrated outcomes (results). The abilities part of competency is the latent potential: knowledge, skills and talent. These are separate from the empirically measurable: performance or results. It is important to differentiate between these two because skills and knowledge cannot be assumed to translate into results. Just because someone can, doesn't mean s/he does.

Unlike character, competency is situational; and the perception of someone's competency can be accelerated or inhibited by their character. The empirical nature of competency also means it will be the more observable portion used to assess trust. Therefore results may be the primary way we assess character, especially during the early stages of a new relationship. Character and competency work together, and are inseparable as we assess and are being assessed for another's trust.

As a good friend once told me, we judge ourselves by our intent but we judge others by their behavior. We may have good intentions, but others cannot read our minds. They only see how we behave, and they make judgments about us accordingly. So it is safe to assume that most people look to behavior as the measurement criteria for trust. To assess both character and competency by measuring behavior, we will evaluate trustworthiness primarily on integrity and results, not intent and ability. Think of intent and skills as the potential, and integrity and results as the realization of that potential.

So, how do we go about building trust? Here is my suggestion: Express character through deliberate communication and demonstrate competency with tangible results.

More practically, being clear about our goal and expressing that goal as clearly and overtly as possible (see my previous article on Goal Driven Communication) is the best way I know to minimize assumptions and set the foundation for understanding intent. This can take the shape of something as simple as an agenda for a meeting with a documented and mutually agreed upon purpose, or it can be as broad as a project vision statement that guides the team for months or years. We know our intent (at least we can if we are conscious and honest with ourselves), but often we don't explicitly express it because we assume it is commonly understood. If you haven't deliberately expressed it and gotten the heads nodding, count on there being multiple interpretations of your intent.

If we focus on openly communicating our intent, we will be positioned to demonstrate integrity by behaving consistent with that expressed intent. Others will watch to see if we are walking the talk as they assess our trustworthiness. Integrity holds us accountable to behaviors that match our intent. Therefore, communicating what we will do toward the goal in advance will clearly predispose others to know what to expect from us and what we are expected to do.

The term for this state of shared awareness is closure. Closure is simply a common understanding of who is doing what, when to deliver what. Sounds simple enough, but it is actually very rarely done. Try it. It takes time, patience and a learning mind to do it well.

Closure is the expressed bridge between character and competency. Closure is essential for trust because it:

  • Makes sure we are all on the same page with a common intent
  • Confirms it publicly so integrity becomes a matter of accountability
  • Allows for an understanding of the necessary abilities to achieve the results
  • Defines the results in a commonly understood and measurable way

Practicing closure is the best way I know to develop trust. It removes assumptions and clearly sets expectations (success criteria) so results can be delivered. And, when it comes to trust, nothing increases trustworthiness like delivering results. After all, achieving results in an effective and efficient manner is what we are striving for and why trust is so important and lack of trust so costly.

If you want to build trust, I would challenge you to practice closure. The next time you are interacting with someone (fellow project team member or family member) give it a try. See if you can get to a common understanding of exactly what will be delivered that can be measured objectively, and who is doing what and when to deliver that result. It may take a little more time, but I guarantee it will pay dividends on the other side.

As a parent and a project manager, practicing closure creates habits that build and reinforce trust. Sometimes when my wife (think boss, too) is in a particularly patient and understanding frame of mind and she asks me to do something, I practice closure with her. What does it look like to her to clean out the attic? It has created some interesting dialogue and I have found out it is not as easy as it seems, even in an existing trust relationship. But it does help set expectations on both sides.

In the next article I will address how to use closure to sensibly and safely extend trust after having assessed someone's credibility. Until then, have fun practicing closure to build your trust, and let me know how it's working for you.

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