Integrity is a virtue admired by all and cultivated by few. The harsh reality is that honesty isn’t always rewarded by humans. We have countless success stories that seem to teach us that altering the truth never hurt anyone. We remediate our collective conscience with contagious phrases like, “It’s just business” and “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
Few of us were taught these lousy tactics by our loved ones. I’ve never met a grade-school teacher endorsing dishonesty, yet it’s at an early age that we discover that half-truths can be handy shortcuts. To developing minds, often the hardest aspect of honesty to convey is that duplicity wounds others. Deceit isn’t purely an outgrowth of pride; it’s bred in the absence of empathy.
Hopeful design is costly to us because it’s vulnerable work. But we can’t let this risk paralyze us.
Trust grows slowly
Building trust takes time. While there are some people we encounter whose integrity is palpable and magnetic, most of us have to know someone intimately to fully trust them. This was put on full display during my time as a camp counselor. I could subject group after group to countless team-building exercises all in the name of building trust.
Even while I coached these teams of youngsters along, I knew in the back of my mind that I too was scared of the Trust Fall. We all know this bit: You climb a ledge and blindly fall backward while your team attempts a catch, and then once it’s over you all hug it out. One of the “lead by example” parts of this exercise was that I, the facilitator, would also complete a trust fall. This would happen most often with folks I had known for 24 hours at best. Relational trust between us had not yet been built. We barely knew each other, but I had to expect them to catch me. Ironically, it wasn’t until they watched their camp counselor sacrifice the health of his spinal column to people he didn’t know that they got the confidence to trust the friends that they did know.
Trust is contagious, but we have to see it to know it’s real. I also believe that trust can be transmitted. I grew up in a small town where I experienced this every day. Word of mouth about each other was something that my fellow Southern Virginians took very seriously. It was bigger than the phrases I was taught like, “Do what you say you’re going to do.” and “You’re only as good as your word.” Trust moved from person to person. You knew you could trust a stranger because someone you cared about trusted them first.
While that transaction does require a great deal of faith, it is still laid upon a foundation of human relationship. And this is something that grows slowly.
We’ve often combatted the problem of trust with transparency. The simplified thesis goes something like this: The more you know about us, the more you’ll trust us. However, what we discover is that disclosure doesn’t equal trust. While transparency is a good and valuable virtue, it’s often only when users can see how things are made that they can fully appreciate their value.
However, it isn’t enough to simply demystify your process. “How does it work?” is one of many questions to answer. Communicating your intent honestly builds lasting trust. We’ve seen how this has been crucial in the consumer goods economy. We want to know more about the mission of the brands we purchase. It’s why our public discourse has reenergized words like authenticity. We’re tired of facades and more hungry for truth than ever. When people discover that your design is unfeigned, they will naturally lean in.
An honest transmission
With the world at our fingertips, via the technology in our pockets, truth feels enigmatic and elusive. Yet when we lean into the fundamental aspects of what makes us human, we see that trust is built through relationship. There’s no substitute for meaningful interactions and time spent with one getting to know one another. These experiences are the foundation of trust. Let’s stop trying to replace trust with novelty and immediacy.