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What Makes You Trustworthy (or Untrustworthy!)

Have you ever really thought about this: What makes you trustworthy? What makes you trust other people? What has caused others to think that you couldn’t be trusted? What are the reasons you’ve lost trust in other people?

Those aren’t merely ponderous questions. They’re vital to understanding your workplace (and other!) relationships.   

What Makes You Trustworthy May Not Be What You Think It Is  

Graphic Showing Thinking of Conflict ResolutionIf you’re like most, you answered the first question easily. 

Most have instant reactions and responses when asked “what makes you trustworthy?” The reactions typically include one of more of these phrases:

  • I’m honest
  • I have good integrity
  • I’m loyal
  • I keep my word
  • I haven’t done anything to lose their trust

Those reasons are all valid. To earn and retain people’s trust, you do have to be honest + demonstrate integrity + exhibit loyalty + keep your promises + strive not to breach the trust they’ve given you. 

You can do all five of these and still not be trusted by someone else. Simply knowing this can accelerate building and restoring trust. 

People don’t trust us because they evaluate those five factors alone. Instead, trust is complex. It’s formed by lots of conscious and sub-conscious inputs. 

When we first meet someone, we evaluate their trustworthiness using some superficial criteria like:

  • Amount of eye contact
  • Body language that seems comfortable and natural
  • Familiarity bias (how similar to us the other person is)
  • Whether or not others seem to trust this person
  • Confidence of the other person
  • Ease and comfort when answering your questions
  • Gut instinct (which is hardly an objective or accurate gauge!)

Over time, we use criteria that are more definitive. We use the 12 Dimensions of Trust to determine if we can trust someone else and to what extent. These criteria may be conscious or sub-conscious. You are likely to consider all 12, but you probably weight some of these more than others. 

Here’s the problem. If you haven’t considered all 12 in your own actions and choices, you may not be living up to someone else’s criteria. If they heavily weighted one dimension that’s not on your radar as a way to demonstrate trustworthiness, there can be an inadvertent breach of trust. 

To assess yourself on the 12 Dimensions of Trust, download this free tool from People First Productivity Solutions.

The same disconnect happens when you evaluate others’ trustworthiness. You may be holding them to a standard related to one, particular dimension… and they may have no idea that this dimension is a consideration you’re using to trust or distrust them. 

If you ever have a vague feeling of discomfort about someone… if you ever feel you can’t trust a person but don’t quite know why… it might mean that there’s a mismatch in what you’re evaluating and what they’re exhibiting in one of the 12 Dimensions of Trust.

Take the dimension of fairness, for example. It can be a landmine that destroys trust when people think of it differently. 

What Gets In the Way of Being Fair and Being Seen as Fair

Fairness is defined as being free from bias, being impartial and unprejudiced, treating all parties alike, showing no favor to one over another, being evenhanded in administering decisions or in interacting with others. 

When people perceive a lack of fairness in the workplace, they characterize it as favoritism. If valid, this can quickly escalate into infringement of employee’s rights. NOTE: favoritism can simultaneously be subconscious (accidental and unintended) and real in its impact on others. 

There are three areas you’ll want to reflect on to find out if you are being fair and if you perceived as being fair.

Do you guard against unconscious biases? 

Unconscious biases are often the root cause of favoritism or acting in ways that are not fair. The familiarity bias is especially insidious and can quickly lead you astray!

Everyone, by the way, is susceptible to unconscious biases like this one. We all – without realizing it – respond more positively to people who remind us of ourselves. This is the connection and comfort you feel when you learn that they went to the same school, grew up in the same city, are close to your own age, have a hobby you can relate to, or any number of other similarities.

Without realizing it, you may favor (or appear to favor) the person who’s most like you. You may lean in, smile more, talk longer, signal openness and interest, and read their responses with a more generous interpretation. When someone is vastly different from you, the opposites are also true. 

When observed, this may cause others to see you as being unfair. 

If you make decisions based on a familiarity bias rather than making efforts to set it aside and evaluate people in their own right, you may actually be exhibiting a lack of objectivity and fairness. 

This is why it’s important to have objective criteria in your hiring/selection process and in employee reviews. It’s why you’ll want to check yourself anytime you don’t have quick connections with people or don’t have much in common. 

Do you communicate frequently, clearly, and evenly? 

The best defense is a good offense. If you’re not communicating your intentions, your rationale, and your expectations, you’re encouraging others’ imaginations to run wild. 

You need to manage the message better to be fair and to be seen as someone who’s fair. 

These three examples illustrate common misses in managing the message.

  • Different information was shared with different people.

If you tell one person the whole story and then share less of the story with someone else, the second person is at a disadvantage. Without crucial knowledge that others have, there are bound to be mistakes. When it comes to light that someone else knew more, the leap to “favoritism” isn’t a big one. 

  • Assumptions were made instead of providing clarity about expectations. 

When you assume that some need less and some need more clarity, you’re setting some up to succeed and setting some up to fail. Don’t assume that some already know, that some will figure it out, or that some have heard it before. When it comes to setting clear expectations, be fair by giving everyone the same information and standards. 

  • Decisions were handed down without explanation. 

If you aren’t sharing your rationale for decisions, people may believe that you can’t justify those decisions. Instead, they’ll think, you made decisions so you could favor one person or group. Ideally, you’ll be setting decision criteria in advance and communicating about those criteria and how they’ll be used to objectively evaluate options.  

Do you define what’s fair the same way others do?

Personality styles cause us to think of fairness in different ways. Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) dichotomy of “Thinking” vs. “Feeling,” we can see that there are at least two ways of thinking about what’s fair. 

Someone with a Thinking preference makes decisions based on logic, precedent, and equivalency. When determining how to handle a situation, this individual will lean strongly toward whatever was done in a similar situation in the past. What was done for one individual is exactly what should be done for another individual. Deviating from the precedent would seem, to this person, patently unfair. 

Someone with a Feeling preference makes decisions based on how they will impact people. To this individual, being fair means doing what’s right for the person in the current situation regardless of what was done for others in similar situations. For this person, fairness isn’t measured in the equivalency of the response. It’s measured in the equivalency of the satisfaction for each individual.

People with Thinking vs. Feeling preferences often clash over how decisions are made. Because they’re defining fairness very differently, they may struggle to understand the legitimacy of each other’s approach. There’s considerable room here for misunderstandings and accusations of unfairness. 

Understanding and explaining these differences can bridge the gap. 

Five Quick Fixes to Demonstrate Fairness and Show Your Trustworthiness  

To shore up your trustworthiness when in comes to demonstrating fairness:

  1. Do a deep-dive examination of your unconscious biases and how they affect your interactions with others. Move away from denial and defensiveness. Everyone has work to do here! 
  2. Work on communicating more transparently and evenly. Don’t rely on others to do this for you. Take charge of what you say, how you say it, who you say it to, and how you check for understanding. Aim to over-communicate on important matters. 
  3. Involve others in the decision-making process. Get their input early and often. Let them know what you’ll be considering as you make your objective decision. Explain the decisions you’ve made and how you came to them. 
  4. Understand, acknowledge, discuss, and value differences in personality styles. Help others see that these differences are what make a well-rounded team. Help them move past right/wrong and good/bad thinking about differences so they can become stronger as a team. 
  5. Don’t try to justify unfairness. If you’re guilty of being unfair or of showing favoritism, address the problem instead of trying to rationalize it away. Being entrenched in your unfairness will only fuel the feelings of mistrust others may have when they see something that seems unfair.   

When you work on all 12 Dimensions of Trust, you’ll find that others trust you sooner and longer. You’ll also find that you are better able to identify what you need in order to trust others. Then you can convey those needs and improve your workplace relationships.

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