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The Element of Trust

August 17, 2010

You may not find Trust on the periodic table, but it is as crucial to the world we live in as any element. Trust’s effect on our brain is that it allows us to let down our guard (which can backfire if the trust is misplaced) and establish a deeper connection with someone. Because of this ability, trust is the perfect catalyst for successful business. The focal point of all of my books and articles on negotiation is that trust and honesty is always the best way for all parties to achieve their optimal results. Whenever possible, it is better to work with other companies than against them. We often treat business like a competition with distinct winners and losers. With this attitude, it becomes a Darwinian game of “survival of the fittest” or a Machiavellian pursuit of power. These philosophies of business allow no room for cooperation, and thus lose out on the benefits achieved when companies work together. In order to fully grasp the importance of trust and how it is achieved, it is necessary for this element to be broken down and to look at its components and properties.

Properties of Trust

Trust is delicate: It can easily shatter into pieces. It is much easier to break it down than it is to build it up. It can take a long time and a lot of work to generate trust, but it takes a very short time and one action to ruin it. Not only that, many people focus more on how trust has been destroyed rather than on how to reestablish it. People tend to publicize negative accounts about corruption and lack of trust far more frequently than they talk about encouraging stories about acts of honesty and cooperation.

Trust is complex: It can be a difficult concept to truly grasp. Scientific and technological development is far more advanced than research into human relationships. Left brain logic dominates. Trust is a very complex human subject which can be very difficult to understand and pin down. Most people would have trouble articulating what exactly they perceive in people that triggers trust or distrust; it is simply an unexplainable feeling or intuition.

Trust is an investment: Trust is the cornerstone of every relationship. You know who you can count on and who you do not trust. Trust (or lack of trust) is one of the first impressions we make when meeting someone new. In order to generate trust we must constantly invest time in doing things that maintain trust in relationships. If we lose trust, we must make even greater investments in order to get it back.

Myths about Trust

There are many myths about trust. Let us have a look at some of them vis-à-vis reality.

Myth Reality
Trust is for weak people. Trust is a hard variable. It is real and measurable and has an effect on the use of values and speed (the greater the degree of trust, the quicker the implementation of agreements).
Trust is only created between two people. Research shows that trust established by one person spreads to others.
You cannot learn trust. Trust can be learnt, developed, and improved, and can become a competitive advantage.
You are either trustworthy or you are not. Trust can be created and lost.
Trust is a slow process. Nothing works as fast as trust.
Trust is based on integrity alone. Trust stems from integrity and skill (15% and 85% respectively).
It is risky to trust. Not having trust is an even bigger risk.
Displaying trust may be interpreted as weakness. Sensibly analyzed trust comes across as competence.
I cannot be the first to open up. Other people have to do that. You should open up and by doing so, be the one to steer the course. Give something away that you won’t miss that much.

Regaining Trust

If a former business relationship has broken down or you find yourself without any allies that you can truly trust, all is not lost! Not only is it possible to consciously build up trust, it is also possible to regain trust when it has been lost. Of course there are situations in which trust has been damaged so badly that it is not possible to retrieve it, but I have found that that kind of situation tends to be rare. It is never too late to extend the olive branch and take the initiative in establishing a strong relationship of trust.

The best moment for planting a tree was twenty years ago.

The next best moment is today.

Chinese proverb

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