Are You Trustworthy?

Your customers, employees, and partners need to trust you. Whether they should is up to you.

In this short post, I’m going to do three things.

First, I’m going to offer you a good piece of philosophical advice. Then I’m going to admit that following the advice will be hard. Finally, I’m going to recommend you follow it anyway.

The advice: Companies should pursue being trustworthy. Why? Simply because being trustworthy is the right thing to do.

That may seem obvious, and most companies know they should be trustworthy. But in practice, many businesses make the mistake of focusing on cultivating trust instead of being trustworthy.

Companies spend a lot of time and money trying to gain the trust of all their stakeholders—customers, employees, partners, their board, and so on. They know that without trust, customers leave for competitors, employee turnover increases, and the company’s reputation deteriorates.

But of course, all that investment may be for naught. Trust can be gained fairly and then depleted over time. (See: Yahoo!) It can also be gained deceptively and lost all the same. (See: Theranos.) Either way, trust that is not rooted in trustworthiness is a false and fleeting promise.

Trust is about reputation. It’s a product of others’ attitudes and judgment. Whether or not your company is trusted is determined by how others perceive it.

Trustworthiness, on the other hand, is independent of others’ judgments. It is a function of a company’s identity, organizational structure, actions, and principles. A company’s trustworthiness is a measure of its character.

Whether you are trusted is ultimately up to those whose trust you want to earn. But whether you are trustworthy is ultimately—and entirely—up to you.

Now, this counsel is easy to believe in theory. It’s harder to follow in practice.

One reason is that trustworthiness is something that has to be followed for its own sake. It’s true that trustworthiness is useful for gaining trust and securing long-lasting, valuable relationships with a variety of stakeholders. But the moment you start focusing on those goals, you’re turning trustworthiness into an instrument—just a means to an end. And when you do that, you’re getting off course.

Companies that aim to be trustworthy merely in order to achieve other, profit-centered goals do not actually demonstrate trustworthiness. They just know it pays to appear trustworthy. In time, their lack of values will become clear.

There’s another reason practicing trustworthiness is difficult. In the day to day fog of business, it’s not always easy to discern what the right path is. Your key stakeholders may not even agree about what the most trustworthy action is.

But here comes the part where I recommend you follow this counsel anyway: Even though it’s hard and the path forward is not always clear, being trustworthy is always the right thing to do.

A company keeps itself on firmer footing when it values character over reputation. In fact, gaining trust without possessing the character to match poses a significant threat to maintaining trust in the long run. Without a foundation of trustworthiness, companies are more prone to ethical misconduct and stakeholders may become confused or uneasy about the company’s positions. When trustworthiness has not been built, trust is likely to wane over time.

Again: See Theranos, or the subprime loan crisis, or Enron—these are inevitable outcomes when stakeholder trust is untethered from a company’s trustworthiness.

If you’ve followed me this far, you may be asking: Is my company trustworthy? How do we know?
One place to start is by asking what your company is doing to establish trustworthiness. How are you identifying areas of ethical weakness? What are you doing to rectify them?

Some of our clients at Compass start in this frame of mind. They reach out not because they’re sure they are in ethical error—there’s no crisis brewing—but because they want to survey their ethical landscape in a particular area. That’s a great place to start.

Developing trustworthiness is not easy, but it’s doable. Your company likely has some of the muscles needed to work on it: the ability to conduct a self-assessment and an openness to learning and growth. With those capacities—and a strong dose of humility—in place, companies can start following this hard but good advice.