Becoming a Trusted Consultant

What Can Consultants Do to Develop Trust with Organizational Members?

With a year of graduate training under our belts, my partner and I managed to land a consulting job for one of the largest hospitals in the state. During what we thought would be an introductory tour of the facilities, our primary contact led us into a room filled with medical professionals and asked us to explain the upcoming change efforts we were planning on spearheading for the entire hospital. Having just met our contact, we had no idea what “change efforts” we were going to be spearheading. Thus, without a plan, or an escape route, we sat in awkward silence. Then, in an unrivaled feat of courage, my partner began to spew organizational theory and research at the audience, and for a minute, my terror subsided. The faces around the table appeared confused. We had confused the doctors! They were clearly not familiar with our field, and as we had just provided them with more than they could possibly chew, we felt our credibility had been established.

As the months went by, we applied a similar assault-by-theory approach to the rest of the hospital staff. We found it increasingly difficult to get emails returned, to have people show up to interviews, and, when they did show up, to give us honest answers. What had we done wrong? After consulting the literature, it became clear that our reception was probably not the result of something we did, but something we didn’t do: Establish trust.

We define trust here as, “The willingness of a trustor to be vulnerable to the actions of a trustee based on the expectation that the trustee will perform a particular action” (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995). As external consultants tasked with meddling in the livelihood of perfect strangers, trust can be difficult to establish, yet essential for gaining access to information and gaining support for change efforts. But what can we as consultants do to foster it? Recent research suggests that, when we are considering whether or not to trust another, we assess three characteristics: The trustee’s abilities, benevolence, and integrity (Colquitt, Scott, & LePine, 2007). Each of these factors can be demonstrated through the actions of the consultant.

  • Ability is that group of skills, competencies, and characteristics that enable a party to have influence within some specific domain” (Mayer et al., 1995). For competence to be perceived, it must first be displayed. Initially, we believed that the best way to establish our competence was to bombard people with all of the theory and knowledge that we had accumulated over the previous year. However, we neglected to articulate how we would turn our theory into something the organization could actually use. As a consultant trying to be perceived as competent, consider the following question: Of the tools in my toolbox, which do organizational members consider the most important? Then, focus your discussions on how you will leverage those skills to meet their needs.
  • Benevolence is the extent to which the trustee is believed to want to do good to the trustor” (Mayer et al., 1995). If organizational members perceive the consultant as wanting to do good for the organization, they are more likely to be seen as having benevolence. Although we were friendly and professional, we assumed that, as agents of change, our presence would represent benevolence in and of itself. The reality is, we were being paid for our time (Profit motive), our contact was not universally liked throughout the organization, and we did nothing to explicitly communicate benevolence. There are, however, steps that can be taken by consultants to communicate benevolence. For example, some behaviors that reliably depict warmth (A proxy for benevolence) are smiling, speaking positively of the self, speaking positively of others, and speaking positively in general (Bayes, 1972). As a consultant who has been hired to remedy organizational maladies, it can be easy to recognize and dwell on the negative. However, try to keep it positive. Also, recognize that judgments of benevolence develop over time. Consider the long run during your interactions. Let staff know that you care about their concerns, but then take visible steps to display this caring. Such steps include affirming someone’s situation, self-disclosure, using inclusive language, being supportive, being authentic, and being present during interactions (Dutton, 2003).
  • Integrity is the perception that the trustee adheres to a set of principles that the trustor finds acceptable” (Mayer et al., 1995). This refers to having an explicit set of moral standards and then sticking to that set of standards. Thus, before you begin your consulting engagement, reflect on your own set of ethical standards and then stick to them! Consultants can be faced with ethical dilemmas that yield positive, immediate payoffs. In the long run, however, developing a reputation as someone who does what they want in favor of short-term gains displays a lack of integrity and will only erode trust. Sticking to one’s guns, no matter the personal risk involved, will help you gain respect as a consultant.

In summary, as organizational consultants looking to form trusting relationships in what are often political minefields, we can be aided by lessons from the research on trust. Not only must you communicate your competence and act with integrity, but you must also display concern for the well-being of the organization’s members. Although folk wisdom is hardly a substitute for scientific evidence, there are instances in which the two converge. The following quote is a perfect example: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”


Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of    organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709-734.

Colquitt, J. A., Scott, B. A., & LePine, J. A. (2007). Trust, trustworthiness, and trust         propensity: A meta-analytic test of their unique relationships with risk taking and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(4), 909.

Bayes, M. A. (1972). Behavioral cues of interpersonal warmth. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 39(2), 333.

Dutton, J. E. (2003). Energize your workplace: How to create and sustain high-quality     connections at work. Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.