How do you build trust? It’s not about honesty

Trust is the holy grail of a business relationship. It allows us to leverage our strengths, use each other’s skills, and most of all, it allows us to move quickly. Trust eliminates the need for meetings, oversight and micromanagement. It empowers people to act and make decisions. Trust builds a strong, cohesive team. Trust equals speed. The faster that a person and company can perform, react, implement, execute and so on, the more likely it is that they will find success.

So how does one build trust? I’ll start by explaining what does not build trust: honesty. The truth is, no one really cares about honesty. I’ll prove it to you. We are constantly confronted by dishonest behavior. It happens with our friends, family, co-workers and leaders. Yet, we still like, love, work with and believe in many of those people. One reason is that an honest person can still tell a lie—be mistaken, have been misinformed by another—and yet believe he or she is telling the truth. The meaning of honesty also changes depending on culture, family influence and individual personality. That is why we feel the world has dishonest people: our idea of honest behavior is different from theirs. It’s also why we are so forgiving. We know that it would be unreasonable to hold everyone to our standard.

So where does that leave us—how do we build trust? One word: transparency—letting others see for themselves what we are doing and thinking. Easy, right? Wrong. Transparency does not come easily, and there are good reasons for that. It means exposing our methods, our thought processes and our technique, which might underwhelm those around us. To some extent, we all feel like magicians and that our work is our performance. If we reveal how we did it, then the show is ruined. I’m sure you’ve experienced or listened to people describe the fear of being “exposed,” that anxious and usually unfounded feeling that co-workers will figure out that they’re not qualified for a job. Or perhaps you know someone who is constantly out to prove he is the best, smartest and most qualified. These are all reasons that people struggle to be transparent.

However, there is a bigger reason we don’t like being transparent, and this one is more insidious: we like to hide our mistakes. If we’re being honest, then we all have to admit that at some point we haven’t mentioned a problem (to our boss, our spouse, our co-worker). We hoped to solve it before anyone else became aware. This approach is not necessarily unethical. Sometimes there are good reasons a problem doesn’t require disclosure. The danger is that problems tend to grow if they aren’t resolved quickly, and the longer you hide something the tougher it can be to resolve, which makes asking for help progressively more embarrassing. Moreover, when you reveal your hidden problem you show a decided lack of transparency.

Shortly after college I began my career in commercial real estate. It was a rocky start. My compensation was 100 percent commission. If I didn’t close deals, I earned nothing. The first few months were so bad that I took cash advances on my credit card just to pay rent. I managed to keep my head above water, and a few years later, I landed a big client. They needed help with an office lease, and I would earn a big commission. I immersed myself in the project and worked diligently for six months. We were close to completing the transaction when I received an email from the client informing me that I had been terminated. I was in shock. We were so close and then, suddenly, I was out. On top of that I had no clue why.

The client said that I had not represented their interests properly, that I had not submitted all available opportunities, did not negotiate aggressively, and concealed information. I was stunned. I had worked so hard for them and maintained an ethical standard Mother Teresa would envy. They were so wrong! Then I thought about it. Were they?

I realized that I had kept them in the dark about most of my activities. They had no idea how hard I negotiated for their benefit or that I had dug up every possible available space. I couldn’t fault them for assuming I hadn’t. More importantly, I did conceal information. I had made a few small mistakes. Meaningless ones that had no impact on the outcome of anything, which I fixed in short order. I could have mentioned them, but I didn’t. The client didn’t need to know and, more importantly, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want them to see small mistakes. They might assume I make big ones. They might lose confidence in my abilities. So I said nothing. In my mind it was like a white lie. It hurts no one and helps me save face. Big mistake.

When I reflect on that experience I know that I was completely ethical. However, it meant nothing. I hadn’t been transparent.

So, how does one become more transparent? Just do it. Make it happen. Carpe diem. That’s the answer you would probably get if you asked any self-improvement guru. Here’s a more practical suggestion: realize that vulnerability creates confidence. The more you show weakness, without shame, the more confident you look. If you don’t believe me, then think about the opposite end of the spectrum. Do you know anyone who brags about himself, his achievements, his kids, people he knows? Does this person seem confident to you? Of course not. Only raging insecurity can drive that kind of behavior, and we all know it. We make fun of those people when they’re not around and sometimes when they are. On the other hand, when people admit faults and own their mistakes, we have a different reaction. We say, “She has integrity and character. I trust her.”

When we are transparent we allow people to judge us on their own terms, which is more effective than presenting our own version of being trustworthy. Even if they don’t agree with everything we do, they still feel comfortable. They understand who we are. You probably have a friend or family member who occasionally tells lies, yet somehow you still like and respect these people. The reason is that you “know” them, i.e., you know what to expect, which is a result of their transparency. Even if these people are not trying to be transparent, they have become so, you have known them so long.

If you want to build trust quickly, then you need to speed up that process. You must allow people to know who you are faster than might be comfortable and without asking for the same in return. Most people attempt this by sharing details of their personal life. They talk about their kids, family, hometown or hobbies, but this is a bit of a head fake. What people really want to know is how you do business and with whom. They want to know your mistakes and your struggles. They want to know what you don’t want them to know.

Here’s an exercise: Think of a few things you would like to know about someone you’re working with, but don’t ask. Instead, share those things about yourself, then see what happens.