What do we mean by Trust?

A few years ago, I took someone’s line-management over at short notice. We’d known each other for several years but not worked much together – I knew him as an experienced and well-respected leader of his function. But in our first 1:1, he seemed reserved, hesitant, and not a little worried – which didn’t match up with my previous experiences of him.

After five confusing and unsettling minutes, the penny dropped. I asked him directly: “Do you trust me?”

After what seemed like an eternity, he said “Yes.”. Followed by another long pause, and the word “But…”

The conversation which followed was extremely valuable. We were honest with each other about the concerns we both had, but quickly reached a point where we were looking for solutions and making commitments to each other. One of the strongest working relationships of my career came out of that conversation, and we went on to be part of an extremely effective team. It also reinforced the need to invest time and energy on building trust as quickly as possible.

Trust is a fundamental component of any relationship. Understanding trust – and actively developing it – is key to running high-performance teams, establishing great partnerships with suppliers, strengthening your customer brand and building confidence with your shareholders. It has three components: DependabilityTransparency and Honesty.


If you say you’ll do something, you do it. If you can’t do it, you’ll communicate promptly, and stay involved until a solution is found. I can concentrate on my own delivery, because I’m not constantly worrying that I’m going to be let down by you, or kept in the dark if something goes awry.


In order for us to be effective, you need to share your weaknesses with me, and vice versa, so we can mitigate them together. By being vulnerable, I can achieve a stronger outcome for both of us. I need to trust that you have no hidden agendas, because if you abuse this trust by subsequently using my vulnerabilities against me, I can be badly hurt. I don’t want to waste time and energy worrying that this will happen.


“It does exactly what it says on the tin”. You don’t misrepresent yourself, or what you have to offer, to me. That car really does only have 8,000 miles on the clock. You really have run a sales team before. I can rely on your honesty.

Building Trust

Some people trust by default, but if let down are impossible to win back on board. Others are very wary of giving trust, but once it has been established forge almost unbreakable relationships. It’s hard to second-guess where someone lies on this scale – and it can be an eye-opening experience for team-members to understand each other in this way.

two-to-lieThe bedrock of trust is behaviour. What you say is irrelevant, if it’s not consistently reinforced by your actions.

Trust has to be reciprocal – and this makes things more difficult as relationships are never symmetrical.

Sometimes it’s because of a power mis-match – one party is much bigger, more authoritative, more respected than the other. This puts the onus on the larger of the two not to misuse that power. Unless there’s give-and-take, the smaller of the two will feel coerced or exploited.

Sometimes it’s because there’s a delay. I’ll pay you for this product now, and trust that it works as promised when I need it. Or I’ll work for you for the next three weeks, and trust that you’ll pay me when we’re done. Again, it’s absolutely vital that we make good on our obligations when the time comes.

High-performance teams take this a step further – individuals contribute their utmost now, without knowing how or when the payoff will come – but they are confident that it will.


Trust is the foundation of all strong relationships, but it takes work. Be explicit about your needs, and take the time to understand others’ – then follow through with dependabilitytransparency and honesty – consistently. Be particularly mindful when there are differences in power and time in a relationship – taking advantage of these mis-matches will destroy trust in a flash.

The return on investment of this effort for you, your teams, your customers and your suppliers will be huge.

For more on trust, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni is a great read. And if you’d like some help building trust and team performance in your organisation, please get in touch.