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Trust: The Intangible that Builds Empires

By Peter Urs Bender |

Trust. It's a feeling, an emotion, and an intuition.

A chain is as strong as its weakest link. Trust is an intangible but it's the tie that binds. In fact it's at the root of all relationships – personal, corporate, government, national and international.

If you seek a dictionary definition, you'll get information on what trust is about but not on what it is. It will talk about integrity, ability, and character, both personal and corporate. The dictionary will talk about responsibility. It refers to confidence, obligation, and hope for the future. It will outline the importance of trust in credit and the law.

All of these intangibles give the lie to the old saying that “what you can't see can't hurt you.” Trust affects the real world of business and affairs in ways too numerous to list. For instance, if you do an Internet search on the word “trust” you will immediately turn up 30 examples of how important trust is in everything from currency to manufacturer-retail relationships, from early childhood education to the security of the Internet itself (an offshoot of lack of trust)!

Trust is the basis of all monetary systems. Think about what happens when a society ceases to believe in, or trust a currency. (Think Argentina). Think what happens when managements don't trust employees (strikes, bankruptcies), and governments don't trust each other (sanctions, wars).

The recent meltdown of the stock market has been described as a failure of “investor confidence”. What is confidence but a form of trust? And what happens when banks no longer “trust” consumers to handle credit reliably, or customers distrust bank liquidity?

Without trust, fair and just negotiations are impossible. All agreements become suspect. Confidence is lost. Hope for improvement recedes. Paranoia becomes endemic. These are intangibles that feed stock markets the world over. But stock markets eventually influence what happens to you and me, whether we have jobs or not. The lack of trust can bring down governments, start wars, and cause whole civilizations to fall.

Surely, though, we know more about such a key factor in human relationships than that it's an “intangible”? Yes, we do. Can we do something to affect it? Yes, we can.

Here are three basics to building trust. They're not the only methods for building trust. But I think they're the most important.

First, recognize that trust (like leadership) comes from within. Singer Barbara Streisand said it beautifully: “I learned you have to trust yourself, be what you are, and do what you ought to do the way you should do it. You have got to discover you, what you do, and trust it.” And more than 2000 years ago the great Roman orator Cicero, said: “Confidence is that feeling by which the mind embarks in great and honorable courses with a sure hope and trust in itself.” It doesn't matter what others think of us. It matters what we think about ourselves.

Second, “investigate before you invest”. Think about this in relation to the people you trust. How did you form that trust? What factors went into it?

You needed to get to know that person. You wanted to understand how he or she thinks, and feels, and acts. You asked yourself what that person has said and done that leads you to believe he or she is “trustworthy”? You tried to back your feeling with evidence. You reminded yourself that what that person says about others are the same things he might be saying about you.

Third, look for similarities, not differences. Follow the sage advice of Thomas J. Watson Jr., former CEO and Chairman of IBM who brought the company into the computer era. “The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it's very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.”

That's a very wise observation. Building trust depends not only on building confidence in yourself, but on your ability to discover similarities between yourself and the person you're seeking to trust. Don't ignore differences, but don't let them dominate the relationship.

Having done all that, are you still inclined to trust the person? You must now make a judgment and act. You must either trust, or suspend judgment. If you suspend judgment, you do not trust.

It's possible to suspend judgment a great deal of the time. Increasingly, we want trust to be earned, rather than given blindly. You can have contact with others; work well with them, without actually trusting them. But doing so over a long period of time is counter-productive. It means you must always “keep watch” over your thoughts and actions, and that in turn, slows the creative juices and the production process.

Far better to be able to investigate, invest, and trust. That way the energy you must spend to guard your back can be diverted into more productive pursuits. Think about how you can build trust, with yourself, your friends, your colleagues, your company and beyond. Then just do it!

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