How can you tell if you can TRUST Someone? (And train your Gut)
It is imperative to know who you can trust. Trusting someone you should trust is the best. Not trusting someone you shouldn’t trust is meaningless. Not trusting someone you should trust is causing damage to you, to them, and the organization. But trusting someone you shouldn’t trust is dangerous and could have devastating consequences.
So, how do you decide if you can trust someone or not? This article will give you a science-based, pragmatic, intentional, and very prescriptive way to tell if you can trust someone, in what, and how much, based on what you know about who they are and what they do when you interact with them. Your gut has much to do with it, and this article series will show you how to train your gut to tell you if you can trust someone accurately.
Why do you care about trusting someone else?
The simple answer is, “Because we can’t do everything ourselves.” But a more complicated answer is that we wish to get a reward, which hardly ever comes without risk (“no risk, no reward”). We each have a risk tolerance level, and when the risk associated with that reward is greater than our risk tolerance level, we trust others to bridge that gap.
Robin Dunbar, a British Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, performed studies that correlated the volume of a neocortex of different species to their social group size and found that a human can only have 150 “casual friends” in that group. You could have a certain level of trust in those 150 people, a higher level of trust you may have in a smaller group and the highest level of trust in probably no more than five people.
But how do you know if you can trust someone?
You can ask them. But will they tell you? And when they say, “Trust me,” can you trust them? Probably not. I know I wouldn’t.
Trust them for who they are.
The decision to trust is based on the components of my relative trust model. Those components are divided (3 each) into two groups of components: who they are and what they do.
The components of who they are are slow to change. They could be transferrable (someone told us that we can trust the other person). They are the starting point for any interaction, and rely heavily on evidence (what do you know for a fact about the other person?).
To improve your ability to determine whether you can trust someone based on who they are, you will have to do your homework first. The more you must trust them, the more in-depth that homework should be.
The two main areas you should research are their competence and your personality compatibility. You could find information about them by researching them online (search engines, their social media footprints) and by asking someone you know and trust who knows them. Make sure you base your evaluation on facts and not on assumptions. The latter tends to be misleading. To determine competence, you should ask questions such as:
Do they have the talent, skills, knowledge, and experience to do what you need to trust them to do?
Do they love what they do? (people who love what they do tend to be good at it)
Do they finish what they started? Do they typically meet budget and schedule constraints (if applicable)? Are they efficient? Productive? Consistent? Confident (but not overly confident)?
Note that those questions are contextual and would vary with situations, what you need to trust them with, and how much you need to trust them.
To determine their personality compatibility, you must look not only at them but also at yourself. Here are things you could consider:
At the universal level: are they truthful? Are they empathetic and caring? Do they follow rules?
At the personal level: do you share values with them? Do you have similar or complementary styles (in some cases, sharing the same values is important. In other cases, having the same personality traits could cause clashes, and being complementary is better)? Are their ethical standards at least as high as yours?
Those bullets are by no means comprehensive. Consider additional questions (whether asking another person or searching online) that would be more appropriate for the situation in which you need to determine whether you can trust them.
You should look at the aggregate of the answers. Do you have enough indications that they have the required competence and personality compatibility with you?
The more you must trust them, the more thought this investigation should be. Think of it as a background check, the depth of which depends on the risk associated with trusting that person.
Once you complete this preliminary investigation, you can determine the starting level of trust before interacting with them. Except for unusual circumstances requiring very low trust, you should also interact with them before deciding the level of trust you feel comfortable extending them.
Trust them for what they do.
It’s not enough to rely on what you learned about the person you wish to trust before meeting them. You must also assess their behavior during the interaction firsthand. While you would be tempted to rely on your gut, there are certain things you should consciously look out for. Those would include:
How much BS (I don’t need to spell it out, do I?) does the other person “contribute” to your interaction?
How much empathy do they show you? Do they show a genuine interest in you and care about you?
When the face-to-face meeting is held in person, are their words and non-verbal cues consistent? Does it appear that they say what they mean and mean what they say?
The latter is where your gut may play a role in determining, but as long as you look specifically for such inconsistency, you can “help” your gut. You will not benefit from detecting body language consistency if you rely on words-only communications (email, text).
Whereas you can help to assess who they are through research, you can help to evaluate what they do through immersion. Increase the amount of time you spend with them (the more time you spend with them, the harder it is for them to force an unnatural consistency), meet with them more frequently, and insist on in-person interactions. You will train your gut that way.
Can you train your gut?
Often, when I ask how you can tell who you can trust, the answer is, “I trust my gut.” Undoubtedly, using your gut is a welcome shortcut, but only if it’s a reliable way to assess trustworthiness accurately.
The good news is that you can train your gut to sense if you can trust someone. Initially, the way to do it is to focus on the parameters listed in this article. Research before meeting the other person, and increase interaction time and intimacy. Compare what your gut tells you with what the evidence and firsthand impression tell you. Whenever you sense a disagreement between what your gut tells you and what the evidence and firsthand impression tells you, investigate further until you resolve that discrepancy. Over time, your gut will be trained, and those discrepancies will disappear.
Even then, it is still recommended that you do the research and increase firsthand exposure.
Want to hear more? This article is the summary of a 4-part podcast episode. Here are links to the different parts:
Part 1: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s9e2-how-do-you-know-if-you-can-trust-someone-part-1-4/id1569249060?i=1000608368067
Part 2: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s9e3-how-do-you-know-if-you-can-trust-someone-part-2-4/id1569249060?i=1000609466470
Part 3: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s9e4-how-do-you-know-if-you-can-trust-someone-part-3-4/id1569249060?i=1000610545032
Part 4: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s9e5-how-do-you-know-if-you-can-trust-someone-part-4-4/id1569249060?i=1000611433542
Dr. Yoram Solomon is an expert in trust, employee engagement, teamwork, organizational culture, and leadership. He is the author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a three-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop and masterclass that explains what trust is and how to build trust in organizations. He is a frequent speaker at SHRM events and a contributor to HR.com magazine.