At the beginning of a seminar at an army base, I approached one of the participants and asked, “Do you trust me?” He immediately answered in the negative. When asked why, he logically replied, “Because I don’t know you.”


Those who are serious about earning and extending trust cannot do so in an interpersonal void. They have to reveal things about themselves so prospective clients or co-workers can know who they are and what they stand for. The opposite is true as well: the more we know about others, the more readily we can determine if they can be entrusted with the goal of making a difference.

To the fullest yet most professional extent possible, get to know the people with whom you will be working. Even in a one-time-only situation, such as a presentation to an audience you may never see again, you can make simple overtures that bespeak your willingness to trust and your wish to be trusted. Before the program starts, you can, for example, stand at the door instead of behind the podium. Greet people, ask them questions, allude to the presentation they are about to hear.


At the beginning of a meeting you might be chairing, learn peoples’ names, invite their thoughts (and record them), and establish some common ground. If attendees do not know one another, you can take a few moments for an introductory or ice-breaking activity, such as this: each person tells two things about himself, one of which is a lie. The others then try to determine which revelation was the lie.

(Even if participants do know each other, you can periodically engage in a self-disclosing probe such as this, “When you think about your work environment, what lights your fire?” After you’ve shared your own thoughts and after everyone else has replied, you can then ask, “When you think about your work environment, what burns you up?”)

Knowing your colleagues means doing your homework. Knowing what their pet peeves and pet passions are can only enhance the appropriateness of the various presentations you make to them. When you are making a pitch to colleagues or those above you in the hierarchy, you need to give thought not only to the content of your remarks but also to the context in which they will be delivered. It will take time to learn their interests and idiosyncrasies, for despite the many hours we spend together in the workplace, we seldom know what lies beneath the surface of our co-workers.

To verify this assertion, try the following experiment. Ask ten people at random, “What is the last time your supervisor or manager asked you what is the greatest contribution you can make to the organization?” Chances are, the majority will either say, “I have never been asked that question” or “Not for a very long time.” Most of us, supervisors or colleagues, are so busy doing what we are paid to do that we feel we cannot take time to know our co- workers better than we do. And yet, without some show of personalized interest, trusting relationships take longer to build.


To illustrate, by demonstrating personalized interest, we can prevent the following problem. In their rush to be known as team players, team members often accept assignments that do not match their special talents. If the team leader, for example, asks, “Ahren, would qyou take on the task of analyzing these data by our next meeting?” Ahren might agree—just to let others know he is not a shirker, that he is as willing as the next person to pitch in and make sure the work gets done. And yet, analysis may not be his strong suit. Ahren may, in fact, be much better suited to tasks of a creative nature. Without knowing his talents, though, the team leader will understandably mis-assign the work to be done.


Learn what people do in their life outside work. The skills applied to social, athletic, and community causes could easily be transferred to the work site. The person who coaches a Little League team, for example, has learned quite a bit about motivating, organizing, coaching, and dealing with conflict. That knowledge has value in the work site as well.

Ivan Seidenberg, former chairman and CEO of NYNEX, would ask employees periodically to tell him what was happening in the workplace. Invariably he found they informed him of things he did not know about. He relied on this information source because when he was a mere 18 and working as a janitor, he engaged in a conversation with the building superintendent who informed him that some firms pay for their employees’ schooling. He mentioned telephone and electric companies in particular. Young Seidenberg obtained an application for the telephone company and has worked in telecommunications until 2011, when he retired as Verizon’s CEO.

An observation from WalMart’s Sam Walton echoes the wisdom of knowing how and what others think—regardless of their station in corporate life: “The key to success is to get out into the store and listen to what the associates have to say. It is terribly important for everyone to get involved. Our best ideas come from clerks and stock boys.” As reflected in the words of Sam Walton, what separates mediocre management from exceptional management is the degree to which managers truly listen to their employees.


Establishing trust is a risky business, and caution must be taken, especially in those situations that could cause us harm. But if we begin in relatively safe situations–with co-workers or new neighbors–for example, we can take incremental steps to both earn and give trust. After all, as author Paulo Coelho tells us, “None of us knows what might happen even the next minute; yet, still we go forward. Because we trust.”


  • Dr. Marlene Caroselli is the author of 60+ books, the most recent of which ("Applying Mr. Einstein") will be released by HRD Press in 2020. You can reach her at [email protected].