Establishing Trust and Credibility


This post is part of a series on IT consulting.

When you start work on a project, you're going to meet people. This will happen in team meetings and one-on-one interviews. It will happen on the phone, through email and, if you use it, instant messaging. Each and every interaction is an opportunity to establish trust and credibility.

Trust. It's an individual's belief in, and willingness to act on the basis of the words, actions, and decisions of another[1].

Think about that for a minute. Gaining trust gives you the power of persuasion. Persuasion leads to influence. In turn, your credibility demonstrates that you will not abuse the trust that people place in you. While this isn't a discussion of ethics, I'd like to point out that the power to influence should be used carefully, with empathy, and for the benefit of the client. The pursuit of personal gain inevitably causes unwanted damage. More about the political landscape in another post.

There are many techniques you can employ to obtain someone's trust, but as an architect I've discovered that the single biggest factor is knowledge. Technical depth and breadth are without equal because it demonstrates that you're able to perform in a manner that meets another's expectations.

Second on this list is integrity. Integrity is a measure of how acceptable your principles are to someone. When meeting anyone for the first time, past actions are the best way to demonstrate this. Telling a story about the time you saved someone's reputation by cutting nice-to-have-features from a product to meet a critical ship date is much more effective than saying "Dude, you can trust me." Stories engage the listener, and build empathy.

There are other factors you have a degree of control over. Social proof is arguably the most powerful when meeting someone for the first time. Have any of your projects received press or other media coverage? Telling someone you're good is nowhere near as effective as hearing it from a third party.

By way of a social proof example, open this page on MSDN, scroll about a fifth of the way down to "Serial Resources", and you'll see my name (fifth bullet) next to a Microsoft Press book. Next, Microsoft did a case study of a project I was the lead architect on. Then there's Nokia Maps for Windows Phone. This one is useful because it demonstrates that my technical knowledge is still very much rooted in the reality of hands-on experience. It also demonstrates my ability to get to grips with new tech - Windows Phone isn't exactly the mainstream.

Another example of social proof is one where you don't need another to directly vouch for you. I've used it in this blog post - the reference. By linking to a credible (in this case academic) paper, you're lending credence to your own position, and allowing the reader to independently verify that. It's a powerful technique that, even when the reader disagrees, can spark constructive and compelling debate.

As mentioned above, the point of trust is influence. Influence is about getting agreement. There are many, many techniques for getting to "yes", but all of them are based on one of the following six categories of human behaviour:


This rule says that we should repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. If someone does us a favour, then we should return that favour. Indebtedness accompanies the receipt of an uninvited gift, service, support or courtesy.

Be sparing with your favours (see scarcity below), and, assuming you're hoping to become trusted, don't expect favours to be returned. If you're in a corner and need to call in a favour, make sure that you're not asking for more than you originally gave.


Consistency is our nearly obsessive desire to be (and appear to be) consistent with what we have already done. Once we've made a choice, we encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.

Social Proof

One means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. We view a behaviour as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see other people performing it.

This is a great tool for establishing your credibility. Create a blog in which you describe projects you've worked on. Be specific about challenges you faced, and how you overcame them. Praise others you worked with. If you can link to a published case study or media coverage of your project, all the better.


We're trained from birth that obedience to authority is good, and disobedience is wrong. Conforming to the dictates of authority has always held practical advantages for us. Once we realize that obedience is mostly rewarding, it's easy to allow ourselves the convenience of compliance.

As an architect limit your authority to technical depth and breadth, problem solving and, if you really know your stuff, the business domain you're operating in.


As a rule, we most prefer to say yes to someone we know and like. Physical attraction dominates the way an unknown person is viewed by others. Another attribute is similarity - we like people who are like us, people who sincerely compliment us, we like familiarity, and we like being in the same boat as others.

Be nice (more below).


Opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited. We're more motivated by the thought of losing something than we are by the thought of gaining something of equal value.


I've listed and briefly described some behavioural traits that influence us, can be used to gain others' trust, and to influence and persuade. If you're interested in digging a little deeper, I recommend Robert Cialdini's book, Influence, the Physchology of Persuasion. Read Lewicki and McAllister's paper on Trust and Distrust, linked to below.

Another good reference is How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. It helps to be nice to people -

  • Don't criticize, condemn, or complain.
  • Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  • Be interested in other people.
  • Smile.
  • Remember the other person's name.
  • Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Talk in terms of the other person's interest.
  • Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.
  • Avoid arguments.
  • Respect the other person's opinions. Never say "You're Wrong."
  • If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  • Be friendly.
  • Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.
  • Let the other person feel the idea is his or hers.
  • View things from the other person's point of view.
  • Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.
  • Dramatize your ideas.
  • Throw down a challenge.
  • Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  • Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly. Use encouragement, and make the fault seem easy to correct.
  • Talk about your own mistakes before theirs.
  • Ask questions instead of making requests.
  • Let the other person save face.
  • Praise every improvement.
  • Give the other person a good reputation to live up to.
  • Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest.

[1] Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., & Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationships and realities, Academy of Management Review, 23, 438-458

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