Unraveling Trust — How to Cultivate Trust in Every Relationship

September 18, 2023
8 min read
Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash
No matter how educated, talented, rich, or cool you believe you are, how you treat people will ultimately determine your success.
Zig Ziglar

Trust me; I'm a doctor.

Or an engineer. Or trust me, I'm a professional. Or trust me, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Trust is a word we hear a lot in our work—or, more precisely, its lack.

Trust is the superglue that holds teams together. Without it, even the most well-engineered project can fall apart. The "absence of trust" is the first of Patrick Lencioni's five dysfunctions of a team.

That absence leads to other dysfunctions—we fear and avoid conflict, phone in our commitment, and avoid accountability, all of which lead to disastrous results.

With a lack of trust, team members feel hesitant to open up. They won’t rely on each other for support. And in Lencioni’s view, they’re unwilling to be vulnerable with each other.

What is trust anyway?

Trust is a word people frequently use, but mean different things by it. That’s unfortunate. Leadership is messy.

Trust cleans up the mess.


Trust, according to Patrick Lencioni, is the belief in the vulnerability of one another.

In Lencioni’s thinking, leaders must lead by example, showing vulnerability—admitting mistakes, asking for help, and sharing personal stories. Create a safe space where team members can do the same without fear of ridicule or judgment. Be real, be open.

Lencioni sets the stage with vulnerability.  Stephen Covey delves into character and competence.

Character and Competence.

Stephen M. R. Covey, author of the bestseller The Speed of Trust, believes trust is the one thing that changes everything.

To build trust à la Covey, the twins of character and competence are central. Be consistently honest and show you're skilled at what you do. Regularly deliver on your promises—no excuses. Trust accelerates success.

If trust is character and competence, Daniel Goleman wants you to put it on display—with emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence, describes trust as the glue that holds relationships together.

To build trust in Goleman's vein, master emotional intelligence: recognize and regulate your own emotions while empathizing with others. Build the emotional currency of trust. Make time for one-on-one conversations; see David Frost’s advice on no-agenda check-ins.

Goleman adds the feels. But how are they used? To build relationships.


Bob Burg sees trust as a relationship. For him, it is the foundation of any successful relationship.

To build trust the Bob Burg way, prioritize giving over getting—consistently add value to others' lives without expecting anything in return. Be a reliable resource, always ready to help or offer guidance. Trust is earned generosity.

Building relationships, for some, is hard. It takes bravery.


American professor and writer Brené Brown describes an arena where we engage in vulnerability, risk, and emotional exposure.

Brené Brown’s advice on building trust is to be brave. To embrace vulnerability by sharing your own fears and failures openly with your team. Foster a culture where vulnerability is celebrated, not shamed. In her mind, courage begets trust.

But trust isn’t just bravery, relationship, or philosophy. There’s science behind how we build trust.


Neuroscientist Paul J. Zak researches the brain’s role in trust. For Zak, trust is a mechanism for creating social bonds of all types.

Paul Zak's insights into the chemistry of the brain give us oxytocin-friendly actions to follow: give autonomy, publicly praise, and foster social connections. Make it a habit to celebrate small wins and individual contributions. Trust is social glue.

So, trust me?

Not so fast. Trust takes time.

There’s a reason trust is described as a verb, not a noun. It takes work on your part to build trust.

Trust is nuanced, not monolithic.

You would not trust anyone entirely in everything—not even yourself. If you knew me, you might trust me to help with your strategy. If you knew me well, you would not trust me to cook you an edible meal.

Trust has shades of gray.

Trust is a many splendored thing.

Trust underpins psychological safety, is in the fabric of high-performing teams, and acts as a salve for toxic culture. Inside groups, it’s a social lubricant. Trust amplifies productivity and engagement.

However you define trust, for leaders, it’s essential. A culture of trust starts at the top. That culture of trust adds speed, quality, and resilience to work. Leaders set the tone. What you say and how you act send signals.

That requires work. You can’t just stay at a Holiday Inn Express.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

Free Survey
About Us
Our Thinking
Free Downloads