All relationships depend on a foundation of trust. There is a direct relationship between employee trust and performance. Customer trust is a key factor in decisions on purchases. And in our personal lives, friendships are built on trust and one of the biggest causes of destroyed marriage is lack of trust.
We seem to be born with a reservoir of basic trust that either increases or diminishes depending on our life experiences. Winning someone’s trust can be easier or more difficult depending on their reservoir. But once trust is earned, it should never be taken for granted. You can lose trust in an instant, and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to earn back.
What is Trust?
As important as trust is, one of the problems is we are not always talking about the same thing when we talk about trust. Trust is a general, all-encompassing word that means many different things.
Huge misunderstandings can occur when we talk about “trust.” If you say you don’t trust someone, do you mean you don’t believe they are honest or do you mean you don’t believe you can depend on them to get the job done on time? If someone says they don’t trust you, what exactly don’t they trust?
There are different levels and intensity of trust. Honesty is a more basic level and has a stronger intensity than dependability.
Understanding the levels of trust and their intensity can help you build a strong foundation of trust and communicate more clearly when others violate your trust.
Level 1: Shared values
To build a foundation of trust, this is the place you must start.
Values are deeply held beliefs that certain broad modes of behavior (e.g. honest, kindness or loyalty) or end-states (e.g. love, equality, or peace) are essential.
Trust occurs when people know they share the same values. The biggest cause of division occurs when people believe they do not. Wars are fought over these differences. Mergers and acquisitions fail because the values of the company cultures are incompatible. Without believing that you share the same values, the other aspects of trust do not matter.
Questions to consider:
- What are your top three to five values?
- What are you willing to take a stand for, even if it puts you at risk?
- How do you behave on a daily basis that demonstrates your values?
- How do you know what other people’s values are?
Level 2: Integrity
The next level up and of almost equal intensity to shared values is whether you live by the values you state. This level is about who you are – your character. Are you honest and ethical? Indeed, ethics are rarely clear cut and at some point we are all confronted with an ethical dilemma. But in general, we know right from wrong. And people who lie are not trusted – bottom line.
Questions to consider:
- Are you seen as a straight shooter?
- Can people count on you to tell them the truth?
- Are your actions consistent with your stated beliefs?
- Do you find yourself frequently making excuses for your behavior?
Level 3: Concern for Others
People need to believe you are genuinely concerned for their well-being, not just your own personal gain. When we believe someone genuinely cares about us, we are willing to open our hearts and become vulnerable. Trust and vulnerability go hand in hand. We do not really trust until we take down the walls. The interesting thing about trust is that it goes both ways. The more you genuinely care about other’s well being, the more they care about yours. It doesn’t mean you need to be friends with everyone, but there needs to be a sense of personal connection. It is in this level that loyalty is forged.
Questions to consider:
- Do you see other people as individuals?
- Do you really care about their well-being?
- Do you look for ways to accomplish goals that are mutually beneficial?
- Are you willing to be vulnerable with others (open your own heart, take down your own walls?)
Level 4: Competent
People need to believe you know what you’re doing and are capable of doing it. If you agree to take on a responsibility, that you are capable of doing it. If you are driving a car, do you have a driver’s license? If you are in a leadership role, do you understand the role of leadership and are you capable of leading your team toward success? Competence doesn’t always mean that you yourself have all of the capabilities, but that you have the ability to pull a team together that does.
Questions to consider:
- What strengths and skills are required for what you want to do?
- Realistically, where are you strong and what skills do you need to further develop?
- How will you develop further? What do you need to learn? What experiences do you need? Who can support you?
- Do others see you as competent in the areas that are important to you? Are there things you need to do to demonstrate your competencies to others?
Level 5: Accountable
It doesn’t matter how competent you are if you can’t be relied on to follow through on your commitments. Can people depend on you? Are you reliable?
Questions to consider:
- Can you be counted on to follow through on your commitments?
- Can you be counted on to complete things on time?
- Do you show up when you are needed?
- Do you consistently provide what’s needed? Are you accountable for the quality of your work?
Identify which level of trust you are referring to in conversations.
“What’s the matter. Don’t you trust me?” my teenage son asked when he wanted to go on a mountain climbing trip with a friend.
Yes, I trusted his integrity and his good intentions, but because of his lack of experience, I did not trust his competence, and specifically his judgment.
Answering a blanket “Yes, I trust you” or “No, I don’t trust you” is a set up for misunderstanding and creates a no-win situation, usually ending with a door slamming.
Instead of saying someone is trustworthy or is not trustworthy, it is much more helpful to be specific about what you trust and what you don’t. If trust is an issue, describe the level trust that is the issue, and you’ll have a much more productive conversation.
That’s a wonderful perspective on important dimensions that help shape our trust. Research has identified three basic levels of trust in relationships that I’ve written about here: https://leadingwithtrust.com/2017/12/03/3-levels-of-trust-you-experience-in-relationships/
The dimensions you call out are interwoven throughout the three basic levels.
Hi Randy, I thought your article on the three areas of intimacy, knowledge and rules was interesting and makes sense. You mentioned this comes from research. Is there a link or article you could point me to? Always appreciate your thoughts as you are the Blanchard champion and expert in this area. Many thanks for weighing in!
Blair Sheppard and Marla Tuchinsky conducted the research that suggests trust develops in the sequence I outlined in my article. Robert Lewicki and Barbara Bunker built on that research and focused on the transitions between the stages of trust. A great book that highlights this research as well as many other aspects of trust is “Trust and Distrust in Organizations,” edited by Roderick Kramer and Karen Cook.
Thanks for these references Randy!
There’s a huge problem in a country when the leader fails on all five of these dimensions. No matter what party you are a member of, you expect even the opposition to share American values,have integrity, have concern for all the people in the country, be competent and accountable. We have a crisis of trust in this country.
One of my goals with this post is to provide a language so we can talk about trust. As you point out, it’s so important, especially these days.
Brilliant. I could feel each level building on the next as I read.
I wondered about the notion that we trust those who believe like we believe (shared values)… Can we trust people who don’t share our values? I suppose it depends on what those values are.
Great questions, Dan. Sometimes people align with others who don’t share their values because it helps them achieve their objectives, but it’s often referred to as “sleeping with the enemy.” There can be the illusion of trust, but there is no real trust at the foundational level unless they are fooling themselves.
Thanks for this post. I’m a big fan of the Trust Equation (http://trustedadvisor.com/why-trust-matters/understanding-trust/understanding-the-trust-equation) and find that when I’m struggling to trust someone, it’s been a really useful tool for pinpointing why. Definitely going to play with the concepts you outlined in this post and try and identify some of the connections.
Thanks for sharing the Trust Equation, Alison. It definitely looks like there are connections. Another excellent resource, if you’re not aware of them, is Reina Trust. They have a great model and an assessment that is psychometrically sound.
Thanks for this useful post. I am an American working in the UK. I found an interesting dimension to the shared values level in that it can be impacted by cultural norms. In the US, the cultural norm is to give trust freely until that trust is broken. What I have found here is that one can not be trusted until it is earned. Once I figured this out, it helped me to understand why I was struggling with trust issues here and have now found ways to build trust quickly. It would be good to hear your thoughts on this?
That is so interesting, Debbie. I wonder if is, in part, an “island” cultural norm.
Interesting observation, Debbie. I did write a bit here about personal differences in how freely trust is given, and there’s a lot more that could be said about that. But I haven’t explored cultural differences. I think it would be worth your writing a piece about your experience and learnings. If you do, would love to consider it for a guest post. Thanks for raising this issue!
I really like the multi-level concept. Our new rookies have a class (on the first day) where they first have to examine their own core values, then share them with a small group (of total strangers) and finally the whole group(6-12) put together a set of shared values for the duration of the academy. It really facilitates attaining the first level. This piece gives me some motivation to help them move through the next dimensions! Thank you, Jesse!
That’s a great way to acculturate and integrate new team members. Thanks for your detailed description. I think it would be helpful for anyone bringing in new employees. And I’m delighted to hear you are interested in looking at the other levels of trust. Some of these issues can be addressed through team chartering and through setting up communication and accountability systems and processes. Would love to know what you come up with.
What a great articel
Thank you. So glad to hear you found it helpful.
I really like your questions. Have you created a questionnaire with them?
Yes we have. If you’re interested in using it, please contact me: https://seapointcenter.com/contact/
Trust is ultimate indeed !! Worth reading!!
Thank you Rakesh
Very useful, Jesse. If you recall from when we spoke some time ago, my group, Covision, provides a high engagement methodology for large group gatherings, both face to face and now increasingly online. And trust and trust-building is at the method’s core. Your model provides a fuller, more explicit language for discussing the structure of trust than we have used. I can also see your model as an underlying process or roadmap for building trust in large groups and organizations. It would be great to work together on a project. Let’s see. And thank you.
Hi Lenny, Delighted to hear from you! Will email you.
Jessie, we discuss trust in the Coast Guard Auxiliary Leadership courses. What we have now in our basic course is a bit weak. Your graphic stands out. I ask if we could use this piece to change our section? We would have to summarize but would cite you. The questionnaire might also be goodcas a class activity!
Hi George, So glad you liked my post and are interested in using the model and questionnaire. I’ll email you my reprint policy and we can look at whether it would work for you.
Thanks for the beautiful and useful text
I can ask you what we can do to regain confidence in society. I agree with you. Trust is the most important principle for survival, any society and organization, and so I would like to choose the topic of trust for a PHD thesis. Are you helping me?
What suggestions do you have for simulating trust in society?
I’m glad you found this helpful, Ali. If you are doing research for a PhD thesis, I’d recommend your taking a look at the research conducted by Reina Trust. https://reinatrustbuilding.com/about-us/our-approach/ I find their model and approach very helpful. Good luck!
The level & role of trust quotient with individuals are of paramount importance in understanding, creating , nurturing and stabilising interpersonal relationships – either personal or professional and hence research
based narratives obviously can be helpful immensely for those who are around with this reasonably complex subject .
I do appreciate the same as it gives incredible insights and benefits ….!
Excellent description of the different levels of trust and absolutely important for any leader to keep in mind.
When it comes to shared values, the broad modes of behaviour and end states, can itself be another broad topic of analysis and contemplation. We develop personal and professional relationships with others, without knowing what our shared values may be. We also wonder why some relationships are easier than others and sometimes we discover that even when we all use the same phrases for describing our values such as “kindness”, this value can be expressed in different forms.
Sometimes, kindness are expressed in loving words, sometimes by saying nothing and sometimes by being bluntly honest to stop further deterioration of a situation.
Thank you for including the questions we should consider for each level of trust as this really helps us look deeper into this complex topic.
Thank you very much for your insightful comments. I agree with you on all points. I recommend that when teams identify their values, that they not simply create a list of words, because as you rightly point out, words mean different things to different people. It’s best to list several examples of what that value looks like in action to clarify its meaning. You might appreciate my article 5 Tips to Ensure Your Values Unify Your Team, Not Divide It
This was excellent. Thank you.
can I use your triangle chart for a report?
Yes, with proper attribution – Jesse Stoner ©2022
The article was as clear as Himalayan water – free of any impurities or ambiguity 🙂 Loved it, and will definitely share it with my students.
I was particularly interested in the interplay between these levels and was wondering whether it’s possible to trust someone if a higher level of trust is present but a lower level is absent. For instance, suppose we don’t share values with someone of a different faith and we’re not sure about their integrity and concern for others. However, we have evidence of their competence and accountability based on their past work. Can trust still be established in this scenario?
Thank your for your thoughts and excellent question, Haresh. One common use of the word “trust” is to mean that you believe the other person will not intentionally cause you harm. And I believe this is what you are asking about. However another use of the word trust can be to trust that they will follow through on their commitment. And, if they are committed to causing you harm, you can trust that while still not trusting their intentions. Therefore, it is better to be specific about exactly what you trust, especially when communicating with others. Discussing behavior, not personality, makes it much easier to resolve conflict and miscommunications.