Why Trust Comes Before Competency

My wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago, an event made possible at least in part because I somehow became the exception to every adage you’ve ever heard about the importance of a good first impression.

I was working in commercial real estate for the Trammell Crow Company in the late 1980s when the company put together an excursion for our clients. Sue came along as a guest of one of my clients, but we had never met and I had no idea my future wife had boarded the flight. Once the airplane hit a cruising altitude and the fasten-the-seatbelt sign went off, a buddy and I started horsing around together and quickly became the inflight entertainment. No need to share the particulars, but I’ll just confess to behaving like a total goofball.

Amy Cuddy, the social psychologist who has studied, written, and spoken extensively about first impressions, points out people quickly answer two questions when meeting someone new: One, can I trust this person’s character? And, two, can I respect this person’s competence? So when I think about the flight, I can’t help but count my blessings, because I did very little to earn Sue’s respect or her trust.

What I’ve learned over the years, and what Cuddy and other academics have confirmed with their research, is that you need to pass the trust test or else competence hardly matters. If you meet someone in business who seems competent but not trustworthy, chances are you immediately start looking for other options. You want to work with people you respect professionally, but not when it comes with the risk that they might lie to you, cheat you, or abandon you in your greatest hour of need.

Yet all too often we over-emphasize our competency skills in the early stages of a work relationship. We want to prove we’re smart enough, capable enough, and skilled enough, so we focus on what we do, rather than who we are. Those skills might be essential, but most leaders I know would rather train someone who falls short on the skills than take a risk on someone who falls short on trustworthiness.

It takes time, of course, to truly earn someone’s trust, so first impressions are just a beginning point. I believe you have to consistently demonstrate integrity and transparency over time to earn trust. You have to let the other person see who you really are, what you believe, and how those beliefs shape your actions. The more time Sue and I spent together, for instance, the more I showed her there was more to me than the goofball she’d first seen on the airplane.

First impressions matter, but the lesson for me is that there’s never a wrong time to make the right impression. When you have a chance to make a great first impression, make a point to earn the other person’s trust and then worry about showing off your competence. But if you mess up that first impression, don’t throw in the towel. Double-down and do the next right thing – over and over and over until trust sinks in. Who knows, it might even lead to a relationship that last for more than three decades.

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