The BIG lie about TRUST – 5 reasons why trust is not earned

(Guest Author Richard Fagerlin for Real. Simple. Leadership)

Nobody comes to the discussion on trust empty handed. We all have strong feelings about it. We know how it feels when trust is misused, betrayed, or withheld. Our perspectives are real and have been informed by a lifetime of experiences, pain and broken relationships. Sometimes these conclusions are helpful and sometimes they hold us hostage.

Over the years I’ve come to a surprising conclusion: our most popular theories about trust are often untrue and almost always unhelpful.

What I’m going to share will likely go against everything you’ve ever heard or thought about trust. Of all the flawed theories flying around about trust, there is one that is more prevalent and also more damaging than any other:

Trust’s Big Lie: Trust is something that is earned.

The Truth on Trust: Trust can’t be earned. It can only be given.

I know, I know. This is a lie that even I have believed for most of my life. The problem with it is that it just doesn’t make sense.

When we’re deciding how much to trust someone, we usually ask ourselves whether they have earned our trust. That seems like the smart thing to do. Until they earn it, we withhold trust to protect ourselves. We put protective policies in place. We micromanage to maintain control and create limits and boundaries to our relationships.

But the truth is, trust can never be earned. Trust can only be given.

Trust is the responsibility of the person who wants high trust. If you want others to trust you – it’s your responsibility. If you want to be able to trust others – it’s your responsibility. If you are committed to giving and building trust, and determined to overcome any obstacles that stand in your way, you will win high trust. If you work patiently and with perseverance to lead your team towards a high-trust, high-performance culture, you can see it happen. Ten of the most powerful two-letter words in the English language are: If it is to be, it is up to me. If you are to have high trust in your relationships, it starts and ends with you.

I fully realize that this line of thinking might make you squirm. When I’m working with my clients or speaking on this topic, this is where everyone starts to jump out of their seats.

Over the next few posts, I will outline why this lie is damaging, how you can better approach trust and give you a vocabulary for making this thinking stick.

For now, ponder these 5 reasons why trust cannot be earned:

DISCLAIMER: (as requested to provide to readers by my wife)

This line of thinking isn’t for those people in your life that will take great advantage (or who have) of you. This line of thinking isn’t for casual encounters, and it certainly doesn’t mean you post your banking information on the bumper of your car. This line of thinking is for people that you are in personal relationship with, that you care to have high trust with, and where winning the relationship game is key. We will talk about the crazies in another post.

  1. Earning trust requires keeping score. Every time you keep score you create a winner and a loser. In the game of relationships, this only leaves losers.
  2. When you wait for people to earn your trust, you are not sharing your scoring system. Nobody knows how to win and therefore can’t meet your unspoken needs.
  3. It is impossible to be good enough, long enough, and consistent enough to keep in high standings. Everyone falls short and the journey to earn trust has no end in sight.
  4. Earning trust is me-focused and you-focused. The more I focus on me and what I need, want and desire in a relationship, the less room there is for me to give you what you need, want and desire. In essence, making people earn trust is a selfish act.
  5. Relationships and teams are messy. There are challenges and struggles with most all of them. A you-must-earn-trust model does not incentivize you to be a better you, to offer the benefit of the doubt, and to serve those around you.

I realize you may not totally agree, but stay with me awhile. Dig into the principles and ideas around trust with me and let’s create a new way of thinking and more importantly, a new way of doing together.

Lead Well, Lead Often and LEAD STRONG!


richard-fagerlinRichard Fagerlin is the founder and president of Peak Solutions.

With over 20 years of leadership and organizational development experience, he is a sought-after speaker, consultant and facilitator. Richard travels internationally helping clients intentionally create a culture of high trust and to be on purpose with developing leaders at all levels of the organization. In 2015 & 2016 Richard was named one of the top 100 thought leaders on Trust in the world.

A Colorado native, Richard enjoys the beautiful Rocky Mountains with his wife and four boys. His favorite team is whichever one his four boys are currently playing on. He is active in his community while serving on the board of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado and Mill City Church.

(Scott’s addition: Richard is also the author of a really good book, “Trustology: The art and science of leading high-trust teams”.  It’s one of my personal favorites.  Learn more at www.trustologybook.com.)

Twitter:  @richardfagerlin   •   LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/richardfagerlin

2 thoughts on “The BIG lie about TRUST – 5 reasons why trust is not earned

  1. Pingback: Quit Your Job… You Are Not the Trust Ref | Real. Simple. Leadership.

  2. Pingback: Eyes Wide Open Trust – the power of effective boundaries | Real. Simple. Leadership.

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