Five Ways to Tell if Someone is Untrustworthy

by Tom Koulopoulos

Five Ways to Tell if Someone is Untrustworthy

“Trust is the superglue of relationships, but if you spot these behaviors, it’s time to find a new partner to do business with.”

I’m going to ask you to trust me on this. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and it may be one of the most important ones I have to pass on.

It’s been said that the only way to definitively tell if you can trust someone is to trust that person. While that may well be true, there are certainly telltales that untrustworthy people almost always exhibit, which will help you mitigate the damage they may cause. If you’re building a fast-growth organization or if you are breaking new ground with a new innovation, trust is the superglue that will hold your team together. I’ve seen it repeatedly. Nothing propels a great team further or undermines a team faster than trust or its absence; the same can be said about virtually any relationship.

What I’ve realized over the years in working with countless people is that there is nothing as vital to a relationship and yet as fragile as trust. The plain truth is that if you are doing business and establishing relationships with trustworthy people, you will be able to weather almost any storm. By the same token, if you’ve been unfortunate enough to get into bed with someone who is not trustworthy, even a mild breeze will capsize the relationship.

Psychologists tell us that the first emotional bond we all develop is trust. Starting at birth, we seek out patterns of consistency that provide a reliable way to interpret the chaos of the world. This is more than just establishing comfort and familiarity. It is a deeply rooted, programmed survival mechanism.

Trust shapes our earliest relationships and it is in these formative years that we learn how to use trust to survive. In that respect, you can easily see how these nascent bonds can create enduring values that reinforce the importance of trust or teach us how to game trust to get what we want. That selfish aspect of trust is in each of us. And that’s fine as long as we reciprocate the trust we receive. But when you learn that others can’t be trusted at an early age, you lose confidence in the value of trust. If you don’t deserve theirs, they don’t deserve yours.

It’s because trust is so intimately woven into our psyches that it is so incredibly difficult to change. To be blunt, people are either trustworthy or they are not. That doesn’t mean they’re good or bad. It just means you can’t place your trust in what they say or what they promise.

Of course, we all tell occasional white lies (“why, yes, honey, there definitely is a Santa Clause!”), stretch the truth (“it really was the biggest fish I’d ever caught!”), conveniently forget facts (“gee, I didn’t realize I ate the last piece of pizza!”), and otherwise create hairline fractures in trust. But that’s rarely of concern. The danger zone is entering into relationships with people who see trust as something they can use to manipulate the truth to serve their own purposes, without regard for the impact it has on others.

Before I go further, I’ll caution you that my experience has consistently been that trying to rehabilitate pathologically untrustworthy people is a fool’s journey. Their perception of reality has been shaped in such a way, and at such a formative age, that nothing short of a direct emotional nuclear hit will dislodge the survival and coping mechanisms they have developed. What’s even worse is that these people not only distrust others, while they make effuse claims of “trust me,” but they also do not trust themselves. In other words, while their actions may let down, damage, and hurt others, in the end they are mostly undermining themselves. Which is why, over the long run, being untrustworthy is punishment enough.

So, how do you spot someone who shouldn’t be trusted? There are five telltale signs that I’ve observed in untrustworthy people. Usually these come in combinations of two or three consistent behaviors. Spot these and you’re pretty well assured that this is not a person you should be putting a whole lot of faith in.

1. They lie to themselves

One of the most striking behaviors of untrustworthy people is that they see themselves in ways that are simply inconsistent with reality. When you encounter someone who seems disconnected from the actual impact that their actions and behaviors are having, it’s a sure sign that they are trying to create a perception that conforms to their desires rather than to reality. For example, if someone constantly describes herself as a quiet person who seeks harmony, while her behavior is disruptive, arrogant, and confrontational, you’ve got a disconnect that should immediately start to raise red flags of trustworthiness.

2. They project behaviors on you that are clearly not ones you are exhibiting

People who are untrustworthy also have an amazingly consistent habit of accusing others of behaviors that they themselves are exhibiting or are contemplating. This one is a classic seen regularly by relationship counselors. It goes something like this. Mary is constantly accusing Jack of contemplating new employment. Jack knows that he is not only perfectly happy where he is and not seeking employment elsewhere but he has also never made any indications that he might be. Jack is befuddled by Mary’s ongoing accusations. Guess who is looking for new employment? That’s right, Mary. If someone is constantly accusing you of something which you know to patently false, chances are very good that what that person is doing is projecting his or her own untrustworthy behavior and insecurities onto you. This one should ring in your head like the bells of St. Paul’s when you hear it.

3. They breach confidentiality

This one has always amazed me. We all remember as kids swearing someone to secrecy only to have them break the promise and then rationalize it by saying, “But I only told one other person.” Well, it’s baffling how that same behavior plays out among adults. Confidentiality, when agreed to (and in the absence of any illicit or illegal activity), is a sacred bond. This one to me is a nonnegotiable. Once someone has broken a pledge of confidentiality, there is no second chance because that person has already demonstrated a desire to gain favor with others that is greater than his or respect for them. By the way, it’s incredibly easy to pick this one out because inevitably these people will share things with you that you can tell were said to them in confidence by others. You can be assured that if they did it to somebody else, they will do it to you. There is zero hope for trust where there is no respect for confidentiality.

4. They show a lack of empathy

This is perhaps the one shared behavior of nearly every untrustworthy person. They are able to rationalize being untrustworthy by diminishing the impact, pain, damage, or inconvenience they cause others. This is also the most dangerous of the five behaviors, because once you lose empathy for those whom your actions affect, you have started down a slippery slope with no bottom. Even worse is the fact that people who truly lack empathy have no awareness that they do, or they’re selectively empathetic when it serves their agenda. It’s simply all about them. Look for clues to this in how people generally treat those they interact with as well as their track record with others. This is the classic example of observing how someone treats those who are not in a position to give them anything of value, such as a waiter or janitor. When I was hiring senior and midlevel execs, this was the single-most important ability I needed to see them demonstrate. I learned quickly that people who lack empathy are among the most volatile and dangerous people of all.

5. Their emotional state is volatile, and they have a pattern of inconsistency and fickleness in their decisions

Remember at the outset I mentioned how trust is formed in our earliest relationships just after birth? If trust is missing in these formative years, it creates uncertainty, doubt, and inconsistency that linger over a person’s entire lifetime of interactions. While it is certainly possible to have people who are not volatile be untrustworthy, it is far more likely that someone whose emotional state fluctuates wildly is. The reason is that they will make promises they quickly regret and retract. They are never certain of why they are making the decisions they are making. And they are far too easily influenced by external factors over their internal compass. Again, we all change our minds now and then, but if someone has a pattern of consistently flip-flopping, look out. Nothing is anchoring that person to an emotional state you can trust.

None of these five behaviors make someone a bad person. And the temptation to fix these behaviors in others can be very attractive to someone who is trustworthy. But that’s because you understand the value of trust. What you’re dealing with is someone who does not. So, unless you’re a licensed therapist and have years to dedicate to the process, I’d strongly advise against it. Sure, as I’ve said, we all exhibit at least a few of these behaviors periodically, and calling someone out on them is entirely appropriate, but if you see two or more consistently, you need to consider carefully the degree to which that person deserves your trust.

Seriously, trust me on this one!

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This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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