Skip to main content

The 8 characteristics of trust in business

Shut your eyes, just for a moment. Imagine a world where you trusted everyone. What would be different?  Cars would be permanently unlocked.  Windows left wide open. If someone told you they would do something, you could rely entirely on them – no need to check up. If you asked for feedback, someone would give it to you straight.  Life and relationships would be so much easier.  And you wouldn’t waste time and energy second-guessing whether people had told the truth.

Trust is one of the fundamental building blocks of successful companies. And yet, it’s often overlooked.  When businesses start, they’re usually run by a small group of ‘A-Players’.  They don’t need systems.  Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and they’re moving at pace – like a special forces team.  As the company grows, rules develop and systems are often introduced.  Why are they needed?  Because a lack of trust has started to creep in. People have stopped doing the things they said they were going to do.

This is corrosive and needs to be tackled – fast.  It’s the root of many problems. You may think you have an issue with sales, but, assuming your product is well-positioned, it may be because you’re not trusted. Your salespeople turn up in front of customers, but they’re not coming over as believable or trustworthy. Or you may have too many ‘diminishers’ in your business.  According to Liz Wiseman’s book, ‘Multipliers’, 70% of people unknowingly diminish those around them.  This may be unintentional, but it all boils down to a lack of trust, confidence, integrity and understanding.

In a recent conversation with David Horsager for the  Melting Pot podcast, we delved deeply into the characteristics of trust in business.  He’s dedicated most of his life to researching this topic, and I love his empirical, evidence-based approach.  His new book, ‘The Trusted Leader,’ is a great ‘how-to’ for CEOs and business leaders looking to build trust in their organisations. And his model is more nuanced than any I’ve used before in my coaching. David’s a man who likes his alliteration.  According to him, there are eight pillars of trust – and they all begin with ‘C’! 

1. Clarity

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is first for a reason.  People don’t trust the complicated or the ambiguous. They do trust the simple and straightforward. And yet, so many companies create marketing messages that are unclear.  Sometimes, they’re total gibberish.  They’re not rooted in the way the customer thinks.  They’re based on how the company sees itself. 

Here’s a great example. Last week, we worked with a distribution client using Alex Osterwalder’s Value Proposition Canvas tool. Thinking from their customer’s perspective, we worked out their pain and identified the features of their product that would relieve this. The client currently talks about 24/7 support but realised this means nothing to their customers.  Instead, they needed to understand that their customers didn’t want to lie in bed at night, wondering where things were. It is far better to frame it in these words than this kind of language. ‘Know where your goods are 24/7′.

This is the value of segmentation and niching. You can go deep into a customer’s values and lived experience to understand their problems. Get this right, and you’ll find the floodgates of sales start to open.  When I look at clients who are growing like weeds, they all have clarity around their core customer. They know they serve this customer exceptionally well, better than anyone else in their market. The customer doesn’t have to work out whether they’re selling something they need. Because they speak in their language of expertise, it’s crystal clear, and they trust them more for it.

Clarity in this context also extends to your employees.  They need clarity of expectation, and once they have this, trust will follow. The first question of the Gallup Q12 measure of staff engagement is, ‘I know what’s expected of me at work.’ Get this right, and you’ll avoid so many difficult conversations.  

2. Compassion

As David succinctly puts it, we trust those who care beyond themselves. If you feel someone doesn’t care about you, you won’t trust them. There’s been some great research into the most successful commanders in Afghanistan. The army units with the highest levels of trust were the ones commanded by leaders who cared about the welfare of their troops. This variable of leadership has made a massive difference.

From a business perspective, this is reflected in the rise of purpose-led businesses. It’s one of the reasons they’re so successful.  Take TOMS footwear.  They donate a pair of shoes to disadvantaged children for every pair bought.  This compassionate approach has seen them grow exponentially. Similarly to innovation, a key driver for one of our clients, Pax8, is the rejuvenation of cities. Instead of minimising costs, they deliberately locate their offices in cities where they know they’ll positively impact the local economy.

Don’t hide it if you’re doing good, socially responsible work.  Sometimes I think clients are embarrassed to talk about it.  It’s not bragging – just clarify what’s important to you and why you do it.  Sharing this stuff in a matter-of-fact way can do a lot to build a foundation for strong relationships and trust from customers and employees.

3. Character

How often do you do the right thing, even when it’s hard?  That’s a sign of character and a big trust factor.  Politicians are a good example of how not to do this. They’ve become the least trusted profession in the UK, according to Ipsos MORI.  Why?  Because they repeatedly duck responsibility. Too often in recent years, there have been serious failings with no consequence. Resignation-level offences that are brushed under the carpet. Leaders cling to power, and this erodes trust. Conversely, if companies take a stand over something – not working with certain industries even though they might be profitable – they increase respect and loyalty.  These ethical decisions are a sign low willingness to trust companies and of character.

When I was MD of IT Lab, we hired people who’d worked at other MSPs.  Their worst habit when they arrived was blaming BT when there was a service failure. It used to drive me nuts, this attitude of ‘It’s not our fault.  BT let us down’.  We had to train it out of them.  Our clients didn’t care whose fault it was. Their contract was with us, not BT.  If you encourage your employees to lie about failure, you create an environment of distrust.  I know there’s a fear that customers will think you’re incapable if you ‘fess up to a mistake. But if you encourage a culture of lies, don’t be surprised when people start stealing from the stationery cupboard. At the core of your business is a lack of character.

4. Competency

This one’s simple.  If you can demonstrate competency in what you say you can do, people will trust you.  I know companies that write white papers or case studies to showcase their credentials – that’s all good, but it’s really time-consuming.  And it sometimes comes over as corporate bullsh*t. It is way more effective to have a raw, uncut video of a client saying, ‘This is me. This was my problem, which is how these guys solved it’.  Video works so much better than the written word. 

5. Commitment

Are you committed in the face of adversity?  Can you show you stay the course, doing the right thing over a long period of time?  Committing to a cause, whether climate change, relieving educational poverty or increasing diversity, will make your business more trustworthy.  This isn’t the same as compassion. You’re committed to something that’s beyond you, but you care passionately about.   

On a personal level, when I think about the people I’ve hired in the past, they’re often members of sports teams.  That’s because they’re committed beyond themselves. They turn up every Tuesday and Thursday through rain and snow to practice. And this doesn’t just show commitment to their team.  If they didn’t turn up, there would be no League.  Their commitment is to the whole idea of the sport and what it represents. 

6. Connection

It’s interesting.  When I think about the companies I’ve run and the clients I coach, they seem to go through an evolutionary arc.  Initial success is often down to the heroic efforts of individuals – the lone maverick in sales who wins the deals, for example.  But as they start to scale, this doesn’t work so well. Ultimately, to grow, companies need A-Players who can connect and collaborate.  Yes, they’re individually talented, but more importantly, they can work together and put their trust in each other. 

After all, the reason that homo-sapiens out-muscled the Neanderthals wasn’t because they were stronger or had bigger brains.  It was down to social organisation and the sharing of knowledge.  They were better together.   

This connection, or lack of it, is one of the biggest impacts of COVID. It’s just harder when everyone’s remote. We’ve lost the random interactions that happen all the time in the office. The serendipitous connections that drive opportunities to work together.  Humans aren’t designed to be apart, and building trust remotely is much more difficult. 

7. Contribution

If you deliver results, you’re trusted. Simple eh?  So, from a marketing perspective, you need to evidence this without bragging. ‘We get these results for companies that look like you.’   So often, this evidence is unclear. Or companies take too broad a view, ‘We do everything for everybody.’  You can’t provide evidence results in that context. This is about being specific.

Similarly, you need to make it easy for employees to evidence their performance and contributions. It’s really important – doing this will build trust in them and their ability. OKRsKPIs can be invaluable.  If people know they’re working towards one or two targets weekly, they’ll get a sense of achievement when they hit them.  Not only will this boost perceptions of their performance and trust in their ability, but they’ll also feel happier.  Win-win!  Create a framework so that your employees can demonstrate their success.

8. Consistency

It may seem boring, but doing the same thing, day in, and day out, will increase trust.  Consistency is the only way to build a brand and a customer base.  Take my coaching business as an example.  Every Friday, we upload the blog and send the newsletter.  There’s a new podcast every Tuesday without fail.  Even during holidays and Christmas, we’ve kept this up. This is how you create a reputation.

David made a great observation when we were chatting about this. He said people will even trust people who are late as long as they are consistently late!  It’s high trust and the relationship and consistency that’s more important. This made me smile.  One of my clients is always reliably 10 minutes late to our meetings.  I know I can make a cup of tea and a sandwich while I’m waiting for him.  So when he turned up on time last week, it was really quite unnerving!

Written by business coach and CEO mentor Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

    Fantastic! Give us your details and we'll call you back

      Enquiry | Scaling Up Master Business Course