What to do: When Trust Building isn’t Going as Expected

By Allan Watton on

What to do: When Trust Building isn't Going as Expected

The foundation of a good relationship is trust. But trust doesn’t ‘happen’ overnight. Many relationships begin with a reasonable level of trust which may, improve or decline with time. If you’re in a situation where a complex IT project isn’t quite going as you’d hoped, trust may be a little thin on the ground. Don’t be too hard on your supplier though; many people start with the best of intentions, but occasionally, things go wrong and they slip up. Now’s the time to engage in trust building.

So why is trust important in client/supplier relationships?

It's hard to get along with a vendor you don't trust.

A survey conducted by the London School of Economics showed that clients in vendor relationships with strong commercial trust incurred up to 40% less cost and achieved better organisational outcomes. The survey also showed that the stress of being in a dysfunctional relationship will increase staff turnover (within the teams managing the relationship) by over 50% compared to organisations that have strong trust. Having positive intent can therefore lower costs and increase profit.

Some companies however choose to take a hard line, opting to use contractual levers and uncompromising behaviours to get what they need from suppliers, instead of using trust. One such company was PepsiCo. Their own analysis found that by taking a hard line, they’d simply fostered distrust. The arrival of PepsiCo’s new CEO, a staunch believer in commercial trust, implemented a commercial trust policy which saw revenues increase by 72% and net profit by 100%. Success which they claim is almost entirely down to fostering commercial trust.

What do I do when building trust is difficult?

The people you trust will usually deliver what they promise. If they drop the ball on the odd occasion, let it go – there’s probably a good reason. The time to worry is if it keeps repeating itself, which could indicate an underlying cause and an individual who needs more support or possibly removing from the project team. You also have to accept that you can’t trust some people. Some just believe in treating people with suspicion or doing whatever it takes to get ahead. They use commercial trust as a technique, rather than as a core belief, and fake an outward belief in it to manipulate others.

A vendor displays untrustworthy behaviours

We’ve all had experiences that shake our belief in our core values. A trusted person lets us down or we see others getting away with untruths and manipulative behaviour. It can appear that ‘everybody’s doing it’ and that such behaviour is a more efficient way of getting things done. However, commercial trust only becomes productive when you genuinely believe that you personally are worthy of trust, that most people can be trusted and that extending trust is a better way to lead. It falls to you to do the difficult thing, which is to lead by example.

And what if I suspect these poor behaviours?

Start by assuming positive intent but use the ‘rule of three’. Work with them to foster trust but if they let you down three times consecutively without good reason, remove them from the relationship (or insist the supplier does, if they are on the supplier’s side).

If you don’t remove them, you will be sending a clear message to everyone else: it’s acceptable to not do what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it. This will destroy your hard ‘trust building’ work with your own team and your strategic partner.

When trust wobbles, have a quick look in the mirror

When the trust wobbles, it’s important to ask yourself why. The following questions will help you to ascertain the problem areas, and to check your progress in developing commercial trust.

An infographic showcasing the elements of commercial trust in a IT supplier partnership


It’s inevitable that there will be bumps in the road and you will need to work at overcoming them. Remember that commercial trust is about behaviour, not just intentions. The way you react to and resolve these issues is crucial to maintaining a trusting relationship. Often when it comes to trust building, you’ll need to do the hard thing and lead by example.

  • Despite your efforts to rebuild trust, there may be people who consistently let you down or who continue to behave manipulatively.

  • Failing to act in these situations will undermine your hard work, as your team and the vendor’s perceive that poor behaviour is acceptable.


FREE EBOOK: Problematic Outsourcing Project