Nutshell: Into the unknown: why investing in trust builds better relationships at work

Written by
Future Talent Learning

02 Nov 2020

02 Nov 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Understanding the role trust plays in relationships and progress at work will help us to improve our own trustworthiness – and build cultures of trust in our teams.

For more than 20 years, the communications company Edelman has studied trust. Like so many other thinkers – from Aristotle or Einstein to more contemporary trust experts such as Rachel Botsman – Edelman sees trust as essential to relationships, the glue that holds us all together.

In particular, its annual Trust Barometer charts how much we trust the institutions we interact with on a daily basis: companies, governments, NGOs and media. For Edelman, trust “defines an organization’s license to operate, lead and succeed.” It’s what allows organisations to take “responsible risk”. For business, it’s an insurance against competitive disruption, the antidote to “consumer indifference”, the key to growth. Without trust, our credibility is lost and our reputations under threat.

All the more reason why we might feel more than a little concerned that their latest research confirms what we all instinctively know, that trust in these institutions is patchy at best: government leaders not trusted to do the right thing; a “raging infodemic” of misinformation; business leaders who should, but often don’t, have an eye to all stakeholders and not just their financial owners.  

If it’s not, as it seems, a golden age for trust, the glue that binds us, where does that leave our relationships, whether that’s between our companies and our customers or ourselves and others?

Understanding trust

Maybe that charted decline in trust is not as straightforward as it first seems, our hand-wringing a symptom of a lack of understanding about what trust really is and how we can learn to develop and deploy it.

Philosopher Onora O’Neill used her 2013 TED Talk to explore what we really mean when we talk about trust. O’Neill’s starting point is that the received wisdom that (i) trust is in decline; (ii) we should have more of it, and (iii) that we need to do everything we can to rebuild it is fundamentally misconceived.

The opinion poll or survey data that underpins the likes of the Edelman Trust Barometer can only give us a generic impression about trust. In the real world, trust is much more finessed – and specific to context and situation. So, for example, we might absolutely trust experienced teachers to teach our young children to read, but trust some more than others to drive the school minibus. We seek to place trust in a differentiated way, the level of trust varying depending on exactly who we’re trusting and what we’re trusting them to do. And that involves a level of individual judgement that generic polls simply can’t identify.

Simply having more trust is also not the answer. The people who trusted fraudster Bernie Madoff with their hard-earned cash, for example, might have shown too much trust rather than too little. For O’Neill, our proper aim should be trust that is “intelligently placed and intelligently refused”. What matters is not so much trust as trustworthiness. Trust is the response, but it’s trustworthiness that we have to judge – and develop ourselves.

Nor is building or rebuilding trust a simple matter. O’Neill reminds us that trust is distinctive because it’s given by other people; we can’t build ourselves what other people give us. The philosopher Robert Solomon observed that trust is something we have to create with others. It’s a continuous process that happens between people. We cannot make people trust us; all we can do is to provide, in O’Neill’s words, “adequate, useful and simple” evidence that we’re trustworthy.

Why trust matters

Rachel Botsman, author of Who Can You Trust?, agrees that we need to be clear and precise in our language when we talk about trust; it’s far too subjective and contextual to be able to make sweeping statements about who we trust or not. Like with O’Neill’s teachers, most of us would trust Amazon to deliver on time, but might feel more equivocal about trusting them to pay their taxes.

It’s a precision that matters because of the key role trust plays in innovation and social progress. Botsman sees trust as a “conduit for new ideas”, a way for us to feel more comfortable about making what she calls trust leaps. When we ask people to do something new or in a different way, whether that’s to use a new tech platform or get on board with a new team structure, it can feel strange, even scary, because it’s hard to know what the outcome will be. That’s when people might need to make a trust leap into that unknown.

At a time of high levels of change and uncertainty, we’re asking people to leap higher and faster than ever before. When they don’t have enough faith in a product, a person or a change, they might feel unable to make that trust leap and instead get stuck in a sea of uncertainty, less willing and able to take risks. Although humans are generally pretty good at making these leaps of faith, especially if we’re following others (think early iPhone adopters, perhaps, or an inspirational leader who can make a compelling case for change), it’s also true that not everyone has the same level of comfort about the risk a trust leap implies.

For Botsman, when we ask someone to trust us, we’re dealing with two variables:

  1. A known state, defined by certainty, and
  2. An unknown state, where we don’t yet know the outcome.

Between the two lies risk. As leaders, we need to find ways to bridge the gap, to make people feel more comfortable with embracing that risk so that we can all move beyond what we already know. That’s where trust comes in. It’s Botsman’s “magical glue”, the bridge between certainty and uncertainty.

Trust is what gives us “a confident relationship with the unknown”. If money is the currency of transactions, trust is the currency of interactions. It matters because it’s a fundamental building block for building positive relationships that help us to move forward.

When trust breaks down

It’s unclear whether anyone ever really said “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair”, but the sentiment is clear. As even well-meaning politicians and business leaders have found, to their cost, that trust can be a fragile thing.

When trust breaks down, it affects us both emotionally and behaviourally. Our initial response might be to feel frightened, confused or angry, but, down the line, it’s also likely to lead to disenchantment, defensiveness and disengagement, hardly the kinds of behaviours we need for positive relationships.

So, how can we avoid these breakdowns, and what can we do if they’ve already happened?

The transparency trap

One common response is that trust is about transparency, that being more open and honest will lead to more trust and better relationships: in the words of infamous GE CEO Jack Welch “Trust happens when leaders are transparent”. The more open we are, the idea goes, the more we reveal how our products are made, share personal stories or be honest when the going gets tough, then the more trust we can generate.

Botsman argues, though, that if we get to the stage where we’re relying on being transparent, we’ve practically given up on trust. When organisations talk about transparency, they usually mean visibility, but there will always be things that should be kept hidden in an organisation or personal relationship. Secrecy is not really the issue.

More importantly, by making everything transparent, we tend to reduce the need for trust. Trust doesn’t stem from our ability to know everything, but from how comfortable we are in not knowing. In order to build trust, we have to be willing to give it away. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Consider, for example, the difference between giving people more autonomy about how they work or trusting people to get on with their jobs when they’re working remotely and the trust-blighting power of software tools designed to monitor every minute of how we spend our time.

We might learn here from Aristotle, who considered justice to be nothing more than a failed form of friendship. He didn’t mean that justice – like transparency – is an inherently bad thing; just that friendship is much better. Holding people to account or making sure they disclose information can be a positive; for example, transparency around gender pay gap reporting is shining a light on the issue of unequal pay. But transparency does not and cannot fix trust. In Aristotelian terms, transparency is a failed form of trust, not the royal road towards it.

Efficiency: the enemy of trust

When it comes to knowing everything about how workers spend their time, nothing comes close to Amazon’s notorious fulfilment centre worker monitoring. Like other aspects of its business, it’s a culture driven by algorithms in service of making operations as streamlined and efficient as possible. That means everything from not relying on the people who pick orders to know or learn where things are stored – the pickers are not meant to have to think too long about what they’re picking – to controversial data collection about the seconds pickers take between items as a means of performance management.

It’s easy to see how this kind of tech-enabled efficiency might damage trust. Back in 2016, the Daily Telegraph was forced to remove, after just a few hours, devices designed to monitor whether journalists were at their desks. Although the newspaper claimed that the devices were part of a wider programme to track energy use, they didn't bargain on their journalists acting as journalists, probing into the device’s manufacturer and offering candid feedback about how they felt about being monitored.

According to Botsman, efficiency (especially efficiency at all costs) is the enemy of trust. For example, the speed inherent in so much tech is a double-edged sword. In our rush to download that app or monitor our people (even for the best of reasons), we’re in danger of ignoring Onora O’Neill’s warning that trust needs to be “intelligently placed and intelligently refused.”

Trust, like any other currency we value, needs time, care and investment. It often needs a bit of friction to test it out. We need to slow down, to seek the right information and to ask who and what is worthy of our trust. And, as leaders, we need to be aware that quick-fix tech or ruthless efficiency can come at a cost.

Earning trust: developing our trust traits

We’ve already seen that trust can’t be built and needs to be earned. And that means that all of us need to work at being more trustworthy.

Botsman’s trust traits offer four traits we can work on to improve that trustworthiness. The traits divide into two categories related to how we do things and why:

How we do things

Competence: Do we have the skills, knowledge, time and resources to do a particular task or job? Are we honest about what we can and can’t do?

Reliability: Can people depend on us to keep the promises and commitments we make? Are we consistent in the way we behave from one day to the next?

Why we do things

Empathy: Do we care about the other person’s interests as well as our own? Do we think about how our decisions and actions affect others?

Integrity: Do we say what we mean and mean what we say? Do our words align with our actions? Are we honest about our intentions and motives towards others?

The traits are a great way to improve our self-awareness around the factors that improve our trustworthiness, but it’s also useful to check our own perceptions. It’s always worth asking a trusted friend of colleague to rate us across these traits in different situations too, and then compare notes.

It’s possible, of course, to be trusted on the how, but not the why (that Amazon example again) or even vice versa (we may be drawn to a friend who is empathetic, but not expect her to show up on time). That’s why it’s useful to identify the traits where we’re naturally less comfortable and to work on developing them.

Trust wobbles

When Frances Frei and Anne Morriss think about developing trustworthiness, they describe all of us as having trust wobbles, those areas of trustworthiness we might struggle with. Their Trust Triangle, similar to other models, identifies three key drivers of trust: authenticity (I believe in the real you); logic (I know you can do it), and empathy (I believe you care about me and my success). Frei and Morriss suggest that, when trust is broken, or fails to get any real traction, it can almost always be traced back to a breakdown (wobble) in one of these three drivers.

That means we need to figure out – preferably with that trusted colleague – where we’re most likely to wobble by looking for patterns in interactions where we seem to be less trustworthy. We might wobble on one trait with our team members, but on another with people who have authority over us. For example, in some situations, we may be less empathetic, perhaps signalling that we care more about ourselves than others, coming across as impatient with people who aren’t similarly motivated or who take longer than we do to understand something.

Analysing our trustworthiness strengths and weaknesses also means thinking about where we wobble in our relationship with ourselves; what Frei and Morriss call empowerment leadership starts not when other people start to trust us, but when we trust ourselves. If we don’t trust ourselves, why should anybody else? We need to understand those wobbles and to work at overcoming them.

Trustworthiness in harmony: the trust equation

Like Edelman, Charles H Green, author and founder of Trusted Advisor, has a long track record of research into trust and what makes us more or less trustworthy. For Green, trustworthiness is one half of what creates a personal relationship of trust; the other half is trusting. One party takes a risk to trust the other and the other proves to be or not to be trustworthy. We can’t directly make others trust us, but, with a proper framework as a guide, we can find actionable ways to improve our trustworthiness. That’s what his trust equation offers.

The equation uses four variables to measure trustworthiness, combined as follows:

Trust in business requires us to generate good “scores” on all four variables. The ideal is:

high credibility, reliability and intimacy, and low self-orientation.

Credibility has to do with the words we speak: “I can trust what she says about x; she’s very credible on the subject.”

It’s about being competent and capable, having the right credentials and expertise. While credibility is largely a cognitive trait there are also some emotional factors at play. For example, do we make people feel confident about us? Do people feel and believe that we’re telling the truth?

Reliability is about our actions: “He’ll deliver the product tomorrow; I trust him because he’s dependable.”

It means that we can be trusted to do what we say we’ll do; that we have a good track record and that we are consistent. Reliability is largely behavioural, but, like credibility, it also has emotional elements. For example, when we promise something, are we confident that the other person shares our frame of reference so that they can understand what we mean?

Intimacy refers to the safety or security that we feel when entrusting someone with something: “I can trust her with that information; she’s never violated my confidentiality before, and she would never embarrass me.”

It means that others feel safe sharing information with us, confident that we will handle that information respectfully and appropriately. It’s related to emotional intelligence, vulnerability, empathy and psychological safety. It’s about mitigating the risk both parties might feel about interactions; for example, nurses and other caring professionals are often considered to be trustworthy because people are not afraid to be vulnerable with them.

If we can lead by example, showing vulnerability by admitting our own fears and weaknesses, it’s more likely that people will reciprocate. Intimacy requires courage and curiosity; showing and sharing our humanity is a great way to prove that we’re trustworthy.

Self-orientation relates to a person’s focus, especially whether that focus is primarily on themselves, or on the other person: “I don’t trust him – I think he’s too concerned about how he’s appearing, so he’s not really paying attention.”

Unlike the other factors, a high level of self-orientation results in a low level of trustworthiness. Green sees self-orientation as the most important variable. Regardless of how high we might score on credibility, reliability and intimacy, trust and trustworthiness can be fatally undermined by selfishness.

This may manifest itself in a sense that “we’re only in it for ourselves” or a tendency to see everything in terms of our own needs rather than those of others. If we’re high in self-orientation, it often feels like we don’t care about others and are all wrapped up in ourselves. We’re much more likely to be trusted if we have low self-orientation that allows us to focus on other people’s needs rather than just our own.

Self-orientation reminds us that trust is about relationships, and we cannot have a relationship by ourselves. The best way to lower our self-orientation is to show people that we care about them and what they think and do – and that starts with giving people our undivided attention.

Trust-earning tactics

Armed with these models to help us think about our trustworthiness, we can also consider some trust-earning tactics we can use on the ground.

Psychologist Paul J Zak believes that brain science is our friend and guide here. He has studied the (positive) relationship between the brain chemical oxytocin and collaboration, teamwork and trust at work. By measuring people’s oxytocin levels in response to various situations, Zak has identified eight key leadership behaviours that stimulate oxytocin production and generate trust.

Recognise excellence (early and often)

Neuroscience suggests that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal and public. Public recognition also inspires others and helps to spread best practice.

Give people the right levels of “challenge stress”

When we set tough, but achievable, tasks and goals, the manageable stress of the task helps to intensify people’s focus and strengthens social connections. But it only works if challenges are attainable and have a concrete end point; vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start – and hardly help to establish trustworthiness.

Allow people discretion in how they do their work

Trusting people to have some agency and autonomy over how they do their work is a big motivator; not for nothing is it one of the key factors in Daniel Pink’s Motivation 3.0 model (autonomy-mastery-purpose).

As leaders, we can find this hard; our instincts may be – Amazon-like – to manage and monitor people more closely. But this doesn’t help people to go beyond their basic job descriptions. Autonomy promotes creativity, innovation and trust because it allows people to try new and different things. It also encourages people to be curious, to pursue their passions and to want to go that extra mile. Samuel Johnson said: “It is happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.” We’re better off assuming that the vast majority of our people are engaged and want to do their best rather than to stifle autonomy – and trust – by micromanaging. And we prioritise efficiency over trust-enhancing agency at our peril.

Think about job crafting

Another form of agency is to support people to have more choice about which projects they want to work on and how they focus their energies on what they care about most. This might need careful managing, with clear expectations, lines of accountability and evaluations in place, but, even on a small scale, it can make a difference.

Share information broadly

Organisations that regularly share their strategies and plans with employees reduce uncertainty about where they are headed and why. That means everything from big, company-wide town hall sessions to routine team and one-to-one conversations. It will help people make those trust leaps when they need to move forward. It’s also another great way to communicate and share best practice.

Build social relationships

It’s easy, in a busy workplace, to focus more on tasks than on relationships. But Zak’s brain research shows that, when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. Google’s Project Oxygen similarly found that managers who “express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being” outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work.

A little social connection goes a long way. Even a bit of social chat before a meeting – especially a virtual meeting – can go a long way. When we care about, and trust, one another, we perform better because we really do feel like “we’re all in this together”.

Facilitate whole-person growth

High-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally. We need to encourage others to build their growth mindsets and develop their learnability skills, and know how to give people effective feedback.

Show vulnerability

Zak’s research is clear that asking for help stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and co-operation. Being vulnerable, showing that we don’t know everything or have all the answers, is the sign of a secure leader who is prepared to engage with others – one who is high on trust equation intimacy and low on self-orientation. Asking for help is effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to co-operate with others.

Trust can sometimes seem to be an intangible thing, a nice-to-have rather than an essential business requirement. But if we don’t invest in a culture of trust and find ways to improve and demonstrate our own trustworthiness, then we’re heading for trouble – especially when we need to innovate or change, and encourage people to take those leaps of faith.

The essential truth is that trust is, as business guru Stephen Covey reminds us, “… the glue of life… the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” We need to understand what it is, that it’s personal, tied to specific context and situations. We need to know how it works, that it’s not within our gift and can only be earned, not built. And we need to find ways to demonstrate our trustworthiness in practical ways, whether through empowering our colleagues, giving public praise, or by taking time out to show that we care and to display our own vulnerability.

The equation is simple: investing in the currency of trust really will yield a healthy return.


Test your understanding

  • Explain why Onora O’Neill believes that rebuilding trust is no simple matter.
  • Outline why Rachel Botsman's trust leaps are important for innovation.
  • Identify the four factors of the trust equation.
  • Describe why giving people autonomy helps to establish trust.

What does it mean for you?

  • Reflect on Paul Zak’s eight trust-enhancing leadership behaviours. Over the coming weeks, find ways to introduce some of these behaviours into your own practice, or to boost them if they’re already in place.


Register for insights and updates or implement one of our levy-funded leadership programmes by clicking on the buttons below.