May 5, 2023 | Hiring & Retention

How can you tell which potential partners are trustworthy?

Q. Dear Zenagos,
How do you identify who is passionate about the work you’re doing, and who just wants to take advantage (personal gain)?

Trust is built over time, through a series of interactions. Without that history, it is very difficult to determine whether you can trust a particular person. We can be easily misled by the difference between objective trustworthiness (which could theoretically be measured by obtaining commitments and then tracking whether a particular person meets them) and perceived trustworthiness, which might be based on subjective factors. Researchers have identified several facets of perceived trustworthiness and have determined that some are most closely linked to personality traits, while others are commonly attributed to gender and other immutable characteristics (Ben-Ner & Halldorsson, 2010). Thus, a particular person may be commonly believed to be trustworthy based on their calm personality, instead of on whether they actually deliver on their promises. The only way to really know whether you can trust a business partner is to work with that partner consistently over time, especially in high-pressure situations.

Is personal gain a bad motive?
It actually may not be bad to be in a partnership with someone whose motive is personal gain. If you know what it is that the partner wishes to gain, it might be a very clear and productive partnership. For example, if you offer to pay an affiliate partner $100 for every potential customer they provide, that partner is clearly motivated by the desire for $100 (hence, personal gain); yet, if that desire motivates the partner to deliver potential customers to you, it could work out very well for you. So, personal gain is only a “bad” motive if what the other party wants to gain is bad for you in some way.

Vulnerable Does Not Mean Gullible
Modern psychology tells us that it is good to be vulnerable, to open yourself up to relationships (PsychCentral, 2022). In general, it is best not to carry negative experiences from your history into new relationships. Instead, try to approach every new relationship with trust – believing that the other person has good motives and will behave honorably. If the person does, in fact, prove trustworthy, then you have a wonderful new friendship that can grow for many years. If the person does not reward your trust, then you move on, investing your time in the trustworthy friends that you cultivate.

However, practicing optimism in your relationships can become problematic if it causes you to open your business up to potential harm. As you practice an optimistic emotional approach, pair that with a pragmatic business approach. Assume that if someone could steal from your business, they may. Put controls in place to protect your bank accounts and credit cards, lock up expensive equipment after work, and install sensible security. Codify your business relationships with clear contracts that have been reviewed by a competent attorney. A handshake may feel nice at the start of the deal, but it will not help you if things get contentious.

Start with Something Small
When you begin a relationship with a new business partner, try to start with something small. Make the start of the working relationship a small deliverable, so you can evaluate how the potential partner works. Take red flags seriously. If the partner cannot deliver something small, you should assume that the partner will not deliver when something important is on the line. Don’t rationalize away misbehavior, no matter how small. When someone disrespects you by arriving late or failing to deliver, take that as a message that you should move on. No matter how profitable the potential business relationship appears to be, life is way too short to be dealing with selfish people. Cut your losses, and invest in the people who deliver on their commitments.


Ben-Ner, A., & Halldorsson, F. (2010). Trusting and trustworthiness: What are they, how to measure them, and what affects them. Journal of Economic Psychology, 31(1), 64-79. Retrieved on May 4, 2023, from

The good kind of vulnerability: Being vulnerable can help foster intimacy and trust in your relationships. (2022, October 11). PsychCentral. Retrieved on May 4, 2023, from


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