This post is part of our Weekly Tips series.

Last week’s tip about the value of candor when you’ve screwed up triggered another walk down memory lane, to a time shortly before Charlie Green and I joined forces, when a colleague’s courageous admission taught me an unexpected lesson about trust-building.

Join me as we roll the clocks back.

It’s 9:00 on a Monday morning in the middle of February. I’m tired. Kinda cranky. I’ve just come home to Washington, DC from a two-and-a-half-week vacation in Thailand.

It was such a great vacation! The culture, the beaches, the food … and now it’s my first day back at work, in my home office.

The weather stinks. It’s cold and drizzling.

The jet lag stinks. Every cell in my body crying for sleep. Instead I’m gearing up to lead an executive offsite with my colleague, Carolyn, starting tomorrow.

And what I’ve learned just-this-minute about the project stinks, because I’ve called Carolyn to say, “I’m back! How can I help?” and she tells me I don’t need to be there tomorrow after all because, well, basically, I’m no longer on the project.

This news doesn’t improve my mood.

OK, in fairness, before I left I had asked the account manager to take me off the project as soon as he could (my career was moving in a different direction), but now that it has actually happened sooner than expected:

  • I’m irritated that my time in Thailand could have been more like a month;
  • I’ve checked all my emails this morning and quite frankly I’m a bit hurt to now realize that my inbox doesn’t include a bunch of messages from the client saying, “No! Don’t go! We neeeeeeed you! It won’t be the same without you!”

So I ask Carolyn point blank, “Has the client been told?”

She says, “I don’t know.”

OK, well, maybe all those “No! Don’t go!” client emails will be coming soon.

I hang up the phone, and I’m trying to decide what to do with myself next: laugh, cry, or simply go back to bed, when the phone rings. It’s Carolyn.

I say “Hello?” at which point Carolyn says something I never expected to hear her say, ever:

“I just lied to you.”

Time out for a quick poll—don’t think too hard about your answer. Can someone who lies be trusted? Your three choices are: no, yes, or maybe.

[Tweet “Can someone who lies be trusted? The answer might surprise you. #getreal”]

Back to the phone call: Carolyn continues, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea you didn’t know your replacement had been found. I wasn’t expecting your call this morning, or expecting to be the one to deliver the news. Totally awkward. And then you ask me point blank if the client has been told and the next thing I know, ‘I don’t know’ is coming out of my mouth! It’s not true that I don’t know. I do know. Yes, the client has been told. (Now she sighs.) I’m so sorry. I definitely didn’t handle this well!”

Back to present day: Looking at this situation from a logical, rational perspective (which is what most consultants/advisors/subject matter experts do), you would naturally conclude that I can no longer trust Carolyn. For one thing, she is now a confirmed liar. The answer to the prior poll would be a clear and unambiguous “No.”

Except my experience of Carolyn is exactly the opposite. In this moment, I trust her more than ever.

How can that make any sense?

It makes sense when we recognize that trust is paradoxical, and when we link what I affectionately call The Carolyn Story to the trust equation:

  • Credibility is built not only by know-how, but also by honesty. Carolyn showed me she was willing to tell the truth about her un-truth. That’s not a mixed message; that’s a courageous act in the face of a human error.
  • Intimacy gets created when we take risks, and when we make ourselves relatable. The thing we’re the most afraid to say is often what will build the most trust in any given moment. Carolyn’s admission was a risk, for sure—I might have slammed down the phone and refused to work with her again, who knows. Instead, I appreciated her bravery. Plus, I could totally relate to her quandary and her goof, because I myself have been caught off-guard and said things un-truths or partial truths. Haven’t you?
  • Low self-orientation is proven when we demonstrate how much we care. Carolyn’s confession told me she valued our relationship more than she valued protecting herself, or saving face in the ways we humans are usually compelled to.

So, can someone who lies be trusted? Maybe. If they’re like Carolyn, then absolutely.

Make It Real

This week, look for stories from your own life, or your own experience of others in general, that illustrate the power of truth-telling. What do you see?

Learn More


Find out what to do if you suspect your clients are lying to you, thanks to our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or brush up on how to use the trust equation to accelerate trust in Chapter 21 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.


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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).