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Trust & Connection — How to Foster Trust to Build Connection

October 2, 2023
7 min read
Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash
There is no greater good than trust. It covers multitudes of sins.
Robert Fulghum

I trust you... ish.

Trust, along with autonomy and flexibility, is an essential ingredient for productivity. If people feel trusted, they are more likely to put in more effort and to go above and beyond.

In a high-trust relationship, we’re more engaged in our work.

Trust makes distributed work ‘work.’ Trust retains and attracts talent. It allows teams to be more collaborative. Trust is a factor that moves us from “my part works” to collective success.

Trust is a factored relationship.

That relationship has many forms: between individuals, between people and information, between teams, a leader and her team, or a customer and a brand. For simplicity, I’ll bundle trust into two groups.

Foundational trusts and functional trusts.

Foundational trusts enable and support team alignment, shared purpose, collaboration, resilience, and performance. Foundational trusts are human, informal relationships. They are intrinsic and emotionally based.

Foundational trusts exist between colleagues who have worked together for years. They have weathered tough days, impossible deadlines, and multiple pivots together and have an unspoken confidence in each other's abilities and understanding of their needs and styles.

Foundational trusts run deep. They enable collective performance.

On the other hand, functional trusts provide supplemental credibility, assurance, and confidence in specific situations, transactions, or partnerships. Functional trusts are formal mechanisms. They are more superficial and situational.

Functional trusts exist between a freelancer and her client. It’s secured through conversations that clarify roles and expectations, the reputation of the client and freelancer (E.g., Employer brand reputation on Glassdoor and seller levels on Fiverr), and the contract itself.

Functional trusts provide confidence in narrower contexts.

Foundational trusts, more than functional trusts, are essential for the team. Bruce Daisley, author of the book Fortitude: The Myth of Resilience, and the Secrets of Inner Strength, alludes to this; “resilience is the collective strength we gain from each other.”

That’s what trust does—build collective strength.

Breaking down foundational and functional trusts.

Foundational trusts come in many flavors:

As do functional trusts:

Building a firm foundation.

Building trust in a team requires a firm foundation. And that firm foundation is built on vulnerable, human, gut feel, hairs on the back of your neck, relationships.

You have a choice.

If you think of trust as a relationship, you can do something with it. You can actively nurture that relationship or damage it.

If trust is a relationship, are we swiping right or left?

Trust isn’t a universal pass or get-out-of-jail-free card. Just like a relationship, trust evolves. There are levels.

I. Low trust: the stranger zone.

At the lowest level of trust, we’re strangers.

Here, we either don’t know much about the other, or we assume a lot and don’t like what we assume. We hold suspicions, assumptions, and inferences about the other’s motives and behaviors.

The upside? Caution protects us from risk. The downside? No collaboration, politicking, territorialism, silos, and low productivity.

The stranger zone lacks foundational bonds. We rely on basic functional trusts based on incentives and deterrence.

II. Mid-level trust: the acquaintance awkwardness.

This is the next level.

Here, we work with each other as colleagues but tend to stick to our lanes. There are many reasons for this; we might be new to a team, or the team might be new. The pressure of work may force people into their corners. Zoom and hybrid work make it difficult to form social connections and bonds.

This level of trust allows each to do their own thing, with minimal coordination or collaboration. Individuals can work independently and focus on their own goals and objectives.

It feels faster; more productive.

The upside? we’re more transparent with each other. We have role clarity. There are no mal-intentions. We coordinate through email, Slack, and meetings. Consensus is sought, but collaboration—true collaboration—rarely happens.

It’s “my part works” territory.

III. High trust: Powerful partners.

This is the third circle of trust.

Foundational trust is fueled by shared experiences over time. We become willing partners. I seek out your advice, trusting your involvement. I know you’ll enhance my work.

This goes beyond trusting me to do my job and trusting you to do your job. There is a level of intimacy in the relationship. I also trust you to get involved with my work.

The “keep of the grass” signs disappear.

The downside? Without attention, side-by-side collaboration and coordination can be highly inefficient. It requires significant time and significant effort. By inviting someone in and valuing their input, you leave yourself open—and vulnerable—to criticism.

But, there’s a significant advantage.

Together, we amplify each other's contributions. The “I’s” in team morph into an “e” and an “a.”

Building trust requires work.

Trust is a relationship that allows you to have healthy debate and conflict; it allows you to commit to decisions and align with the team's goals.

But you have to put in the work. That work comes in six C’s.


Research shows that consistent behavior over time builds trust.

If you follow through on promises and your actions align with your words, it establishes you—in people's minds—as reliable and predictable. You are perceived as dependable, which strengthens trust.

The counter is true. Consistently overpromise — say, you commit to deadlines but are constantly late; even for reasons beyond your control, you are not dependable. People trust you not to follow through because that’s what you consistently do.

Be aware of what you commit to. Set realistic expectations. Underpromise and overdeliver, and follow through relentlessly to demonstrate consistency and build trust.

(Sources: Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995; Six, F, 2007)


Concrete rules.

Clear, unambiguous communication cements trust. Studies prove it.

If you work to communicate clearly, you avoid confusion. Misunderstandings are prevented. Transparency of expectations, objectives, decision processes, and reasoning increases mutual understanding and lays a foundation of trust between people.

The opposite erodes trust.

Vague expectations, unclear requirements, and opaque decision-making breed uncertainty. Uncertainty counters the predictability and reliability people want, damaging trust.

Make it your work to clarify objectives, priorities, processes, and, most importantly, the reasoning behind choices. Ask questions to check understanding. Summarize conversations. Leave no room for guesswork, misinterpretation, or ambiguity.

(Sources: Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995; Thomas, G.F., Zolin, R., & Hartman, J.L. 2009)


Competence fosters trust.

Research shows that when you demonstrate the skills and expertise to fulfill obligations, you are perceived as capable and relied upon more.

There are two vital words in that sentence—demonstrate and perceive. It’s not enough to be capable; you have to appear capable. Trust is built on the perception of your competence. Displaying ability through strong performance builds confidence that you can deliver.

In contrast, hyperbole, bravado, and overstatement sew doubts.

Build competence. Even the best improve. They have a growth mindset. Focus on building competence for yourself and your team. Trust flourishes when others experience consistent, capable, performance.

(Sources: Mishra, A.K., 1996; Colquitt, Scott, & LePine, 2007)


Credibility indicates trustworthiness.

Research has shown that people are more likely to trust someone with a good track record.

People judge you. You come off as credible if you have a track record of aligning word and deed. If you honor commitments and uphold principles.

The opposite is true. When words and actions conflict, trust suffers. Even occasional lapses make dependability and integrity seem questionable.

Build credibility by making decisions guided by shared values and modeling ethics in words and deeds. Seek genuine win-wins. Follow through consistently. Trust grows when credibility is established over time.

(Sources: Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995, Whitener, 1997)


Candor and trust are uneven bedfellows.

Transparency builds trust, yet candor makes people uncomfortable. Research shows sharing openly signals authentic intention, even if the news is bad. But you might avoid transparency, dodging unease and sidestepping self-doubt.

This tension exists because candor is difficult. Admitting mistakes, welcoming criticism, and revealing shortcomings are brave but unnatural.

Push past discomfort to encourage candid conversations that build trust. Straight talk. Start small by acknowledging an area of your self-improvement. Ask for blunt critiques. Discuss the long-trunked, grey-eared elephant in the room. With practice, candor becomes easier, bringing relationships closer and building foundational trusts.

(Sources: Wolfe & Kim, 2021; Karau & Williams, 1997)


Caring behaviors nurture trust.

Studies show that expressing empathy, listening actively, and building rapport through compassion deepen foundational trusts.

Demonstrate authentic interest in team members' well-being and human needs. Be vulnerable. Ask thoughtful questions to learn team members' aspirations. Be present and focused when others speak. Provide support, especially during difficult times. Show you view people as whole human beings, not just work resources.

Trust builds when people know you genuinely care. This emotional foundation strengthens collaboration, unlocks discretionary effort, and fosters organizational commitment.

(Sources: Mishra, Aneil K., and Karen E. Mishra. 2005; Colquitt, Jason A., Brent A. Scott, and Jeffery A. LePine. 2007)

Trust me, and work towards a culture where colleagues feel connected. Where they have a sense of community. Where performance soars.

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.

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