Not Sure Who to Trust? Start by Asking These 4 Questions

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It can be difficult knowing who to trust.

Most people think they have a pretty good “trust radar,” knowing who’s trustworthy, but studies show we aren’t that great at discerning who to trust. We tend to trust people whom we like on a personal level as well as those who are most similar to us even if it’s to our disadvantage. One study of hospital nurses showed the majority of them sought out advice from those they personally liked even though more competent individuals were available.

I misplaced my trust in a landscaper based on a personal recommendation from a friend. The landscaper (we’ll call him John) had done excellent work for my friend. John was personable, knowledgeable, and took me to see several of his recent projects for other homeowners. I paid John a decent sum of money to start revamping my front and back yards. Stamped concrete, landscape lighting, new sod, bushes, trees, plants…the whole deal. Well, you probably know where this story is going. John started the work, got it partially completed, but then faded out of sight. After nearly a year of constant badgering and threatening legal action, I finally got a partial reimbursement of money I had advanced John and we parted ways with one-third of my project still incomplete.

That experience was many years ago before I started studying and teaching about trust. I wished I had known then what I know now. If I had, I would have asked myself these four questions before I decided to trust John.

1. Is he a person of integrity? For me, this is the first and most important question. A person of integrity is honest, has honorable values, consistently lives by those values (walks the talk), is fair in their dealings with others, and always strives to do the right thing. Assessing someone’s integrity may require you to do some digging into their past, such as obtaining references from past employers or colleagues, checking their standing with organizations like the Better Business Bureau, or searching out online reviews. The best predictor of someone’s future trustworthiness is their past trustworthiness. If the answer to this question is no, then STOP. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. Save yourself the trouble and heartache of trusting someone who isn’t worthy of your trust.

The best predictor of someone’s future trustworthiness is their past trustworthiness. (click to tweet)

2. Is he competent? Competence is having the demonstrated knowledge and skills to perform a particular task. Demonstrated is a key word in this definition. You want to trust someone who has a track record of success in relation to the specific goal, task, or project. It’s easy to mistake confidence for competence. People can talk a good game and convey the sense they are capable and motivated to do the job, but have they actually done it successfully in the past? Competence is relative to the context of the situation. It would make sense to trust your CPA to prepare your tax returns but not to diagnose and treat an illness. Make sure someone has the skills to do the job.

3. Is he dependable? Ask this question to understand if the person consistently follows through on his commitments. No one is perfect and there are times we all fail to meet a deadline, but what is this person’s history with being reliable? Does he show up on time for appointments? Is he responsive? Does he do what he says he will do? Does he hold himself and/or his team accountable? Or is he unpredictable, inconsistent, or reticent to make commitments? You could answer “yes” to the other three questions, but if the person can’t be depended on to actually do the job, does it make sense to trust him?

4. Does he care about me? This question is exploring the idea of benevolence—placing the interests of another ahead of your own. Benevolent people care about the well-being of others and act in ways to promote their welfare, not harm it. If someone cares about you, they won’t seek to take advantage of you. They will be open communicators, transparent, and authentic in their dealings with you. Although demonstrating care is an important consideration in deciding to trust someone, it may not be a deal-breaker. For example, if I need to have major surgery, I’m much more interested in trusting the surgeon who is an expert in their field, has a stellar reputation and a track record of success, regardless of their bedside manner. As I mentioned earlier, we are more inclined to trust those we like even if there are warning signs they may not be the best ones given the situation. Don’t let your heart overrule your head in this situation.

Getting back to my experience with John, the landscaper. He was very competent. I saw several examples of his work and definitely trusted his expertise in being able to do the job. He also appeared to be dependable, as far as I could tell. My friend had a great experience with John and didn’t mention any issues with his reliability. John also appeared to care. We hit it off on an interpersonal level, shared similar perspectives on faith, and he was initially very communicative and responsive. However, if I would have more deeply investigated John’s integrity, I would have quickly seen several red flags: his contractor’s license was expired; he had been taken to court several times; and he no longer maintained a physical office as indicated on all his paperwork.

If I had asked these four questions before I decided to fork over a bunch of money to John for my landscape project, I would have been much happier and my wallet a little thicker. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I’m grateful for the experience. Let my experience be a learning opportunity for you. Use these questions to help you make a confident and informed decision about another person’s trustworthiness.

One Comment on “Not Sure Who to Trust? Start by Asking These 4 Questions

  1. Pingback: 10 Essential Leadership Blogs | Sergio Caredda

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