Trust, says Stephen M.R. Covey, underlies everything we do, have and achieve; in fact, trust profoundly affects the outcome of every future moment of our lives. But that’s not what makes Covey’s new book, The Speed of Trust, so valuable. Here’s the core insight that makes the book worth its spot on all the bestseller lists: trust is a measurable skill that can be effectively taught and learned. What’s more, says Covey, trust is not a purely “soft” social virtue but a hard-edged economic driver that can make or break careers and companies.

Covey the younger—who ran his highly effective father Stephen R. (7 Habits) Covey’s $100 million Covey Leadership Center before forming his own consultancy group, CoveyLink—comes to his subject with that familiar Covey capacity to draw profoundly simple truths from masses of data and observations. And like his dad, he is also a keen observer of the network marketing community. When we spoke with him recently, he had some insights to share about our profession’s “trust standing” in the world (it’s rapidly improving) and where we most stand to improve. — J.D.M.

You speak about trust being inherently reciprocal. What does that mean?

The people who trust me, I also tend to trust back. And the same is true of distrust, by the way. At CoveyLink, we have corroborated this idea in our work with organization after organization. For example, we worked with an executive team composed of twenty-three people. We took each person privately, so their results would be anonymous, and had them go through twenty-two cards representing the other people on the team and sort them into two categories: “I tend to trust this person” and “I tend not to trust the person.”

We instructed them not to think about it in depth, just to go through the stack quickly. They would breeze right through: “Trust this person, don’t trust this one, trust, trust, don’t trust, trust, don’t trust…” and with very few exceptions, they could easily place every single person into one camp or the other.

When we collated all the results, we found something fascinating: there were just a few people whom the others all tended not to trust—and they were the same individuals who tended not to trust anyone else. In other words, if you distrust people, they tend to distrust you back. As Lao Tzu said, “No trust given, none received.”

In your book, you say that one of the best ways to create trust is to extend it. Why is that?

When you give people your trust, they respond to that, they rise to the occasion. It brings out the best in people. A few will abuse it, and because people get burned, they start to have this idea, “You can’t trust anyone.” But we’ve let the 5 or 10 percent we can’t trust define the 90 to 95 percent we can. And that’s a big mistake, because most people respond very well to trust.

This is similar to what we see with love. Love is both a noun and a verb. It’s an outcome, something you have—but it’s also a verb, something you do. So it is with trust: you can engender trust in other people through who you are and what you can do.

Naming this as a skill suggests that it’s something you can practice and become proficient at—not an inborn, you-have-it-or-you-don’t talent.

Exactly, and seeing it this way is both far more realistic and far more hopeful. The great leaders are always those who create mutual trust. Otherwise, they’re just managing. They might be very efficient administrators, but if they aren’t strong at establishing trust, they’re not leading.

In fact, this ability, both to establish trust in new relationships and to restore it where needed, is an extraordinarily important skill for us today as leaders in this new global economy.

Why so? What has shifted that makes this skill especially relevant today?

There are two major reasons.

First, the whole notion Thomas Friedman calls the “flat world,” the impact of technology and globalization. Because we’re all drowning in information, we really need to know what we can believe, what is valid. Today more than ever, the ability to cut through the clutter and serve as a trusted voice gives you huge advantage.

The “flat world” idea also implies an increased reliance on interdependence—on teaming, partnering, collaborating, working together. All these dimensions thrive or die based on trust.

Take collaboration: this new economy demands an ever-increasing amount of genuine collaboration across companies, across borders, with multiple stakeholders and partners. But if there’s no trust in the relationship, then you’re really not collaborating—at best, you’re cooperating, and perhaps even just coordinating.

It’s the same thing with innovation. Just try to innovate in a culture of distrust, where people are vying to take the credit—it’s extremely difficult.

And the second reason?

More and more, we’re all operating within a climate of distrust. Everywhere we turn, in our society, within organizations, even within our individual lives, there’s increasing distrust and suspicion.

The data bears this out. In the U.S., only 34 percent of Americans believe that other people can be trusted. That’s one in three! It’s lower in some countries where there’s been a history of rampant governmental corruption, while in Scandinavia it’s double that—68 percent in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. But overall, trust is going down—trust in our institutions, in the media, in the government. Trust in companies is very low; only 49 percent of employees trust their senior leaders. We trust our neighbors less, and even ourselves less.

Within that climate, if you have the ability to engender an upward cycle of trust and confidence, what an advantage you have! You become an island of trustworthiness in a sea of cynicism. This gives you profound influence in the world.

Explain what you mean about how distrust “taxes” us.

Trust serves as a performance multiplier: it increases every other strength you have. On the other hand, if there’s distrust, everything else you do is discounted or diminished.

I call this being “taxed.” When you communicate with someone, if they don’t trust you, they don’t hear what you’re saying—and that’s a tax on your communication and ultimately on your performance.

Trust affects everything, therefore it changes everything.

As an environment in which everyone is a volunteer, network marketing would seem to be a fabric built entirely of trust or faith.

I agree completely. I have many close friends in network marketing, and my experience is that the primary offering in your business, even more so than the product or the business, is the credibility and trust of the individual. In addition to the products and the business, the person is core to what’s being offered. It’s who you are, your credibility.

In The Speed of Trust, I talk about the four cores of credibility, and all four are critical to your ability to establish belief and trust in others.

The first core is integrity. Integrity is like a tree’s root system. Do the roots go down deep, or not? If you’re dishonest, you might be able to fake it for a short time, but as soon as the storm comes it will uproot the tree.

The second core is intent, that is, your motive or agenda—and I think this is particularly significant in the network marketing business. Are you seeking mutual benefit, a win-win? Are you acting in the best interests of the other person, and do they see that? Or are you primarily being self-serving?

I call this the “trustee standard.” The trustee has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the person or organization for whom they are serving as trustee. They are legally and morally bound to act in that other person or people’s best interests. I believe you are most effective as a network marketer when you approach your business with that same idea: you are acting as a trustee for other people’s interests.

I love that concept: having a fiduciary responsibility to the people in our networks.

And think about it from your own perspective: you tend to trust those who you believe are acting in your best interests.

I’m not saying this can’t be a mutual benefit. Of course it’s mutual: that’s part of how we win. But the starting place is to seek to act as a fiduciary for their best interests. Doing so makes you tremendously credible.

And by the way, it’s not enough for you to say, “Yes, I’m already doing that, they should know that this is good for them.” No—it’s do they feel that you’re acting in their best interests? Otherwise, there’s enormous resistance and people are taxing everything you’re saying to them.

So the first two cores focus on character; what about the other two?

They focus more on competence, which speaks to what you can actually do for people.

The third core is your capabilities, which includes your product or your offering, as well as your personal knowledge, skills and understanding. When you’re current and relevant, when you can help solve problems using today’s skills and not yesterday’s, because you’re constantly improving, that also makes you more credible.

The fourth core is your results. If you have a track record of producing, of helping other people win, that makes you more credible. Your reputation really does precede you—and if it’s a good one, people tend more to trust you.

Of course, everyone has to start somewhere. But even if you’re starting out brand new in your network marketing business, you still bring to it the credibility you’ve established from other work you’ve done in your life. Everyone starts with a track record and relationships of some sort.

Stephen, where do you see network marketing as a whole, in terms of trust? And what do you see as our biggest challenge in that regard?

I think that network marketing’s credibility is very much on the rise.

This is true in part because there are many fantastic people succeeding in the business and doing a great job of helping many others achieve success as well. As more and more people do this, it raises the validity and other people’s perception of the entire profession.

Also, there are quite a few credible business authorities and other opinion leaders speaking about network marketing and direct selling as being legitimate, sustainable business models.

Pilzer, Kiyosaki, Bach and so forth.

Exactly, and they bring their own credibility to what they say, which further elevates the profession. That’s a very positive direction—and I think there’s no question that this will continue into the future.

Network marketing is very much a part of this increasingly flat world as we move into a network- and relationship-based economy. And your results only lend further strength to that. As you have more and more people succeeding in network marketing, it becomes a rising tide for the entire profession.

And our biggest challenge?

I think your biggest challenge continues to be around this notion of intent. For some, this is still an issue: what’s the intent and motive? Are you my friend, or are you just trying to recruit me into your system?

People don’t want to feel they’re seen as my friend only because of what good they can do for me. They want to be friends with people who look out for their interests.

In your business, if you believe fully in your offering—both your products and your opportunity—then you naturally want to share that with others. But if your true intent is to help other people, to have their best interests in mind, then you can’t assume there is just one solution for them. In other words, your offering may or may not be the best thing for that other person. And if it turns out it’s not, then you’re completely at ease with that.

If you come to it with the attitude, “This is the best solution for me, therefore it should be for you, and you need to see that!” this may cause the other person to question your real intent and motive. But if instead your approach is, “I’m going to share what’s exciting for me because it may be of interest to you too, but regardless of whether it is or not, my interest is whatever is in your best interest,” that frees people up to trust you.

There are many, many network marketers who have embraced this attitude and intent quite beautifully, but I think it remains as a challenge for the profession as a whole.

Ironically, based on what you say in your book, taking that posture really starts with trusting yourself and creating some faith to stand in there. So this whole issue may really come down to this: do we really have genuine faith and confidence in ourselves and in what we’re doing?

That’s right. You’re basically saying, “Look, I have enough trust and confidence in myself and in this opportunity I’m involved with to let it stand on its own merits. I really want your best interest, and if this doesn’t excite you or interest you, I’m giving you that space. My intent is the same.”

In the book I quote Frank Herbert, who said, “The people I distrust the most are those who want to improve my life but have only one course of action to do so.”

Oh, that strikes right to the core!

Doesn’t it? And what I’m suggesting is the opposite: “I care about you; I want to improve your life. Here is one possible course of action. It may be a terrific one for you, or it may not—and I’m okay with that, because what I care about most here is what will serve you.”

I believe we’ll bring more people into network marketing if we adopt that approach. By creating that type of freedom and genuine intent, I believe the business opportunity will speak to people on its own. You free them from any potential baggage they might have brought to this; you allow the process to flourish in a climate of trust, instead of having them question what your real agenda is.

I’m not saying that if you believe in your product and opportunity, you shouldn’t be passionate about it. Of course you should, and you can certainly share that passion freely. It’s just that you want to extend your complete trust to the other person in making the judgment as to whether or not it is also something for him or her. And when you extend trust, you’ll find it is reciprocated.

This seems to go back to what you said earlier, about our really having three offerings: product, opportunity, and a third—

Which is ourselves and the trust we offer. For some people that’s the most important need they want satisfied in order to move on in the process. Others might start with the product or the opportunity, and that trust may be the final thing that they “buy.”

Given that, our profession may prove to play a critically important role in the years ahead.

I think it absolutely can, because it’s so heavily centered around building relationships.

In The Speed of Trust, I go into thirteen behaviors that build trust. [See sidebar—Ed.] When you adopt these ways of behaving, it’s like making deposits into a bank account, the balance of that account being how much trust exists in your relationships.


Thirteen Behaviors Common to High Trust Leaders throughout the World

1. Talk Straight
2. Demonstrate Respect
3. Create Transparency
4. Right Wrongs
5. Show Loyalty
6. Deliver Results
7. Get Better
8. Confront Reality
9. Clarify Expectations
10. Practice Accountability
11. Listen First
12. Keep Commitments
13. Extend Trust

I love the fact that the very first one is “Talk Straight,” because that’s a drum I’m always thumping: just tell the facts. Don’t exaggerate—you don’t need to.
I’m glad you’re saying that, because that can also be one of the “credibility gaps” for this business. People sometimes overstate their case. And I understand why: we’re trying to get people’s attention and have them see these positive results. But it’s far more powerful when you approach it with real straight talk:

“You have to work hard at this, it doesn’t just happen automatically. But if you’re genuinely interested, if you do these things we’ll show you, then you can have real success.”

It doesn’t always have to be the extraordinary, almost unbelievable story that moves people. I know these amazing things happen. But I think network marketers could use more success stories that are not quite so amazing. You tell a modest, reasonable story, and you can add, “And some people have done even better than this…”—but paint a realistic picture.

Straight talk builds trust. Otherwise, you become like politicians—everything is spin, spin, spin, and no one believes it.

Contrary to popular belief, people are not fools.

Exactly! And their basic premise is, “If something sounds too good to be true, that’s exactly what it is.”

What’s more, if you don’t talk straight from the beginning, people can easily become disillusioned later on, when they’re in the process of building and they find out how difficult it can be. And then they really lose trust: “They weren’t completely honest with me.”

As your profession talks straight, you’ll increase your credibility in the world. The more your profession behaves in these thirteen ways, the more people’s perception of your integrity, intent, capabilities, skills and your track record will rise—and the more trust you will create.

The trust that people have in you, and your ability to engender that trust, are the heart of what good network marketing is all about.