The 4Cs of Building Trust

by Jamie Flinchbaugh

Trust is a fun word for organizations to throw around. They use it as part of branding with customers. They build employee cultures around it. They attribute it to the ability for someone to lead. Trust is a vital ingredient for sustainable success. But where does it come from?

1. Trust must be built. Sometimes you’ll hear phrases “I have asked for their trust” or “I’ve decided to trust him for now.” This can imply that trust is a decision or choice. But these phrases are almost always a one-time offer after trust has already been breached and are also limited in their scope.

Trust can be lost through an action or decision but must be built up over time across a series of actions. If you already have an established culture of trust, that will certainly reduce the friction of making your strategy work. Do not ask for people’s trust; instead, take deliberate actions to build it. The next four items cover care, communication, competence, and consistency as ingredients for trust.

2. Demonstration of care. If people do not believe that you care about them, their outcomes, or their circumstances, it is very difficult to build trust. This is usually considered from an ethical perspective, meaning that people’s ethics dictate that individuals and organizations should care about one another. But care does not just have to ethical, as long as it is genuine, it can be functional or operational as well.

Let’s start with a definition of the duty of care, a legal term used to describe situations where people must, legally speaking, care. This essentially means that you have taken care in situations that could do harm to others. You may think that “taking care” and “caring” are fundamentally different, but to the recipient, the experience is identical. The point is, whether your motivation is ethical or functional, the perspective of care will give people certain experiences, and those experiences will lead to impressions, and those impressions will build trust. Said another way, your actions speak louder than your intentions.

3. Communication provides context. People will draw conclusions based on their experiences whether you want them to or not. The question is, do they have all the information needed to draw an accurate conclusion. If you do not communicate effectively and thoroughly, those information gaps will be filled in with rumor, doubt, and fear.

Part of building trust through communication includes feedback behind bad news. Whether it is an evaluation or a rejection of an idea, people need to hear the “why” behind those decisions. They may not like the decision, but if you effectively communicate, then they can at least trust that you did not withhold information. It is quite possible, and frankly important, to be able to trust someone even if you don’t agree with them.

4. Competency delivers on the promise. This goes both ways. When a leader promises something, people must believe that the leader is competent enough to deliver on that promise. If it sounds good, but a leader cannot deliver the result, then what will someone expect the next time?

This also works in the other direction. For a leader to empower their team, then they must assume a competence to deliver on what they were empowered to do. If an individual or team is not competent to deliver what is expected, then the leader’s behaviors will reflect that, and trust will deteriorate.

Overall, there are two systematic actions that help. First, the continuous development of people to build competence. Second, making competency transparent. Knowing that there are gaps and that we understand them, and that we are making efforts to close them, builds the trust of competence.

5. Be consistent. The final factor is that all of the above must be done with consistency. If, for example, you demonstrate care sometimes, and disregard it other times, then all of your good intentions will be for naught. Just like product brands, trust is built through consistency fulfilling your promise.

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