The 4-Point Test to Evaluate a Person’s Trustworthiness

March 23, 2023 Randy Conley

It can be difficult knowing whom to trust.

Most people think they have a pretty good trust radar—a sense for who is and isn’t trustworthy. But research shows we aren’t that great at discerning whom to trust. We tend to trust people who look and act like we do, and confirmation bias causes us to trust those who fit the pattern of our existing beliefs or values.

Placing our trust in someone is a risky proposition because it comes with the potential for having our trust betrayed. Trust and risk go hand in hand. You don’t need to trust if there’s nothing at risk. That’s called certainty, a sure thing, a guarantee. But if there is risk—if there is a chance you might get burned extending your love, money, or faith to someone else—trust is essential.

I’ve experienced the fallout of misplacing my trust in someone. I placed my trust in a landscaper based on a personal recommendation from a friend. The landscaper (we’ll call him John) had done excellent work for my friend. John was personable and knowledgeable, and took me to see several of his recent projects for other homeowners. I paid John a decent sum of money to start revamping my front and back yards. Stamped concrete, landscape lighting, new sod, bushes, trees, plants—the whole deal. Well, you probably know where this story is going. John started the work, got it partially completed, and then faded out of sight. After nearly a year of constant badgering and threatening legal action, I finally got a partial reimbursement of money I had advanced John and we parted ways with one-third of my project still incomplete.

That experience was many years ago, before I started studying and teaching about trust. I wish I had known then what I know now. If I had, I would have applied this four-point test to evaluate John’s trustworthiness:

  1. Are they a person of integrity? For me, this is the first and most important question. A person of integrity is honest, has honorable values, consistently lives by those values (walks the talk), is fair in their dealings with others, and always strives to do the right thing. Assessing someone’s integrity may require you to do some digging into their past, such as obtaining references from past employers or colleagues, checking their standing with organizations like the Better Business Bureau, or searching out online reviews. The best predictor of someone’s future trustworthiness is their past trustworthiness.

If the answer to this question is no, then STOP. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. Save yourself the trouble and heartache of trusting someone who isn’t worthy of your trust.

  1. Are they competent? Competence is having the demonstrated knowledge and skills to perform a particular task. Demonstrated is a key word in this definition. You want to trust someone who has a track record of success in relation to the specific goal, task, or project. It’s easy to mistake confidence for competence. People can talk a good game and convey the sense they are capable and motivated to do the job, but have they actually done it successfully in the past? Competence is relative to the context of the situation; e.g., it would make sense to trust your CPA to prepare your tax returns but not to diagnose and treat an illness. Make sure someone has the skills to do the job in question.
  2. Are they dependable? Ask this question to understand if the person consistently follows through on their commitments. No one is perfect, and there are times we all fail to meet a deadline—but what is this person’s history with being reliable? Do they show up on time for appointments? Are they responsive? Do they do what they say they will do? Do they hold themselves and/or their team accountable? Or are they unpredictable, inconsistent, or reticent to make commitments? Even if you can answer yes to the other three questions in this section, if the person can’t be depended on to actually do the job, it makes no sense to trust them.
  3. Do they care about me? This question explores the idea of benevolence—placing the interests of another ahead of your own. Benevolent people care about the well-being of others and act in ways to promote their welfare, not harm it. If someone cares about you, they won’t seek to take advantage of you. They will be open communicators who are transparent and authentic in their dealings with you. One of my favorite leadership principles from my recent book with Ken Blanchard, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, illustrates this point. Simple Truth #35 is “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In many ways, trusting others is a gut decision. We instinctively trust those who we believe care about us. Knowing that, it’s important to balance our heart’s desire to trust someone who cares about us with our head’s knowledge of their integrity, competence, and dependability.

Getting back to my experience with John the landscaper: He was very competent. I saw several examples of his work and definitely trusted his expertise in being able to do the job. He also appeared to be dependable, as far as I could tell. My friend had a great experience with John and didn’t mention any issues with his reliability. John also appeared to care. We hit it off on an interpersonal level, shared similar values, and he was initially very communicative and responsive. However, if I had investigated John’s integrity more deeply, I would have quickly seen several red flags—his contractor’s license had expired; he had been taken to court several times; and he no longer maintained the physical office that was indicated on his paperwork.

If I had asked these four questions before I decided to fork over a bunch of money to John for my landscape project, I would have been much happier and my wallet a little thicker. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I’m grateful for the experience.

Let my experience be a learning opportunity for you. Use this four-point test to help you make a confident and informed decision about another person’s trustworthiness.

About the Author

Randy Conley

Randy Conley is the Vice President & Trust Practice Leader for Blanchard®. He is coauthor of Blanchard’s Building Trust training program and works with organizations around the globe, helping them build trust in the workplace. In 2022, Randy and Ken Blanchard coauthored Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, and most recently, Simple Truths of Leadership Playbook: A 52-Week Game Plan for Becoming a Trusted Servant Leader.

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