Trust is built through commitment

When you make a new friend, and he tells you he'll meet you somewhere, you take it on faith that he'll be where he says, when he says. But if two or three times in a row he stands you up, and you end up watching a movie or standing in a club alone, your trust in him will decline. In effect, he's broken his commitments to you. If it continues, your perception of him will change. You will no longer see him as reliable, and you will question your trust in him in matters of importance.

According to Humphrey's Managing the Software Process (Addison Wesley, 1989), one of the central elements of well-managed projects is the leader's ability to commit to her work, and to work to meet her commitments. Humphrey believes this is so important that he precisely defined the elements of effective commitments. His list, with a few modifications, follows.

12.1.1.1 The elements of effective commitment

1. The person making the commitment does so willingly.

2. The commitment is not made lightly; that is, the work involved, the resources, and the schedule are carefully considered.

3. There is agreement between the parties on what is to be done, by whom, and when.

4. The commitment is openly and publicly stated.

5. The person responsible tries to meet the commitment, even if help is needed.

6. Prior to the committed date, if something changes that impacts either party relative to the commitment, advance notice is given and a new commitment is negotiated.

There are two things of particular interest here. First, commitments work in two ways. The two people involved are mutually committed to each other. If Cornelius commits to Rupert that he will walk Rupert's dog while he's out of town, both parties are bound to respect the other's interests. Cornelius should never have to travel the 25 city blocks to Rupert's apartment, intending to walk Rover in Central Park, only to find Rupert lying on the couch watching television ("Oh, sorry. I meant to call you yesterdaymy trip was canceled."). Each party's trust is granted to the other in a trust exchange, and the expectation is that the trust will be respectednot violated or forgotten. Allowing someone to waste his time or money is a violation of trust.

Second, we make commitments all the time. In every conversation we have in which we ask or are asked to do something, and agree to a timeline for it, we're making a commitment. This includes simple statements such as "Hey, I'll call you after lunch" or "I'll read that draft by tomorrow." Two people may have different ideas on how serious the commitment is, but there is rarely any doubt that some kind of commitment has been made. The less seriously we take our commitments to others, the greater the odds their trust in us will decline. There are different levels of commitment (e.g., if you forget to call your wife one afternoon, she won't assume this means you want a divorce), but they all connect together and contribute to our perceptions of others' trustworthiness.

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