Unpacking Trust — How to build trust with 6 powerful principles

April 22, 2024
7 min read
Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash
Everybody trusts until they get punched...
Mike Tyson

The average person knows about 30,000 words.

I dare say you know about 40,000. Arrange those words in a row from concrete to abstract. The practical, you-can-easily-describe-it words are on the left. That’s about 14,000 straightforward words, starting with “cat,” “sat,” and “mat.” The words you hope to get in a game of charades.

On the right are the game-losing words.

These words are sophisticated. An abstract, theoretical, inaccessible group. Roughly 26,000 of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it-words, like “zeitgeist,” “qualia,” and “existentialism.”

Trust sits at number 26,262 in this thought experiment.

It’s squarely in the middle of the abstract words, about two-thirds of the way along the concrete-abstract spectrum. Yet it’s a very popular word, easily outperforming “cat” and “zeitgeist.”

Trust is a word we use a lot but don’t really grasp.

Perhaps some principles might help? Here are six.

#1. Trust is self-referential.

Trust is a feeling.

We trust, you trust, I trust. And “I” am the only one I am sure about. We remember (psychologists call it encode) information better when it’s about us—when we have a personal stake. This is the self-reference effect. This is about your experience. How you feel. Take the directions to a restaurant. No matter how good you are with navigation, you remember the directions better if you have been there. If someone explained them to you, not so much.

So it goes with trust. We have a personal stake.

In the saying, there’s no "I" in team; in reality, there is. It’s “I trust.” Trust in teams is a collection of “I’s.” Same with culture. Same with organizations, the root is “I.” Our own unique, individual biases, foibles, and personal judgments directly impact how I trust.

I trust.

#2. Trust is a relationship.

You may have a trusty steed or a trusty sword. More likely a trusty sidekick.

When I trust, it’s a relationship between you and something else: a trusted source, a trusted brand, a trusted service. We use the word trusty when we have a personal relationship and affection for something dependable and reliable. We go with trusted when there’s a more professional sense of reliability, reputation, and quality.

But what about I trust you? I trust another person or group.

That’s the face-to-face, ego-to-ego, “I” to “I” relationship—the one that powers teams through cooperation, information sharing, problem-solving, and productivity. Built from shared moments over time, social bonds and community.

I trust you.

#3. Trust is operative.

What do I trust you with? I trust you to do something.

Complete a project, follow up on a call, fix a problem, launch a new feature; the list of do’s at work is endless. Trusting others to do is what makes teams work.

When trust is not operative, bad things happen.

Micromanagement: the excessive oversight that kills morale and hamstrings innovation. Information hoarding: I don’t trust what you will do with a particular piece of information, so I don’t share. Over time, this lack of operative trust turns bureaucratic. Ingrained in the system, along with risk aversion, silos of information, and learned helplessness.

When trust is operative, the situation reverses.

Micromanagement gives way to autonomy. Information hoarding turns into information sharing. People take risks and offer forgiveness.  Silos break down, and discretionary effort increases.

I trust you to do...

#4. Trust is shared goals.

If I trust you to do something, that something better be a shared goal.

That shared goal may be a purpose that creates a sense of belonging and shared identity. A shared why unites a team. A strategic narrative clarifies expectations, scope, and role. It reduces uncertainty and increases trust. People can see themselves in the picture.

Shared outcomes are what we aim to achieve together. They provide more clarity and a shared ambition. It grounds what you are doing and what I am doing in a tangible way. Knowing you are shooting for the same goal can help me back off an approach I might question or a concern I might have.

Common goals, set as OKRs for the team and well run, build trust on the team. Shared Objectives and Key Results create a platform for open communication, fostering trust. Regular, transparent progress check-ins on OKRs create an opportunity for learning.

[We’re on the same page, so] I trust you to do...

#5. Trust is tested.

[We’re on the same page, so] I trust you to do something.

And then something happened, and I didn’t like it. We were fine at the “Why” and the “What” stage, but I didn’t love your “When” and “How.” My micro-managey tendencies come out. To misquote Mike Tyson,

“Everybody trusts until they get punched in the mouth.”

When your eyes are watering and ears ringing,  trust is tested. This may be the most crucial principle of trust. You’re near to crossing the line. When you want to give feedback, get into a colleague's area, or tread on their expertise, there's a keep off the grass sign.

Your natural instinct is to hold back. Don’t go there.

But you must. It’s better for the business. It will avert a problem. It will, in the long run, help your colleague. You have two options.

  1. Give direct feedback the way you see it. Here, you’re spending your social capital. Depending on the individual and your partnership, they are going to take all of your feedback, some of it, or reject it outright. Whatever the outcome, you risk damaging the relationship.
  2. Give trust-building feedback. Here, you’re building social capital. You don’t talk about the individual or their potential shortcomings. Instead of “about them,” you talk about what “the team needs from them.” This depersonalizes the feedback. It makes it an action and a choice. It focuses on growth and improvement.

Whether the feedback is digested is all in the framing.

[We’re on the same page, so] I trust you to do... [but here’s some feedback.]

#6. Trust changes.

How much I trust you, and to do what, will change over time.

We call change over time: experience. My experience with you changes my perception of you as someone I do, or don’t, trust.  Much of that change has more to do with me—my life experiences and personal growth—than it has to do with you.

But you can influence that change.

Trust, by nature, is skewed. When trust is self-referential (I trust) and trust is a relationship (I trust you), there is an inequality of information. I will always know more about myself than I will about you. This is where signaling comes in: giving hard-to-fake cues about yourself that others can pick up on.

Those cues come in the form of Consistency, Clarity, Capability, Credibility, Candor, and Care—the six C’s of trust.


Consistent behavior over time fosters trust. People are more likely to trust someone who acts predictably and reliably than someone whose actions are erratic or inconsistent. (Lewicki, McAllister, & Bies, 1998)


Clear and transparent communication builds trust by reducing ambiguity and uncertainty. People appreciate being kept informed and understanding the reasoning behind decisions. (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995)


Demonstrating competence and expertise fosters trust, as people are more likely to rely on those they believe are capable of delivering on their promises. (Colquitt, Scott, & LePine, 2007)


A reputation for honesty and integrity is crucial for building trust. People are more likely to trust someone they perceive as truthful and ethical. (Krackhardt & Bhattacharya, 1999)


Being open and honest, even when admitting mistakes, can strengthen trust. People appreciate authenticity and vulnerability. (DeConinck & Schmidt, 2012)


Demonstrating concern and empathy for others builds trust by promoting a sense of shared values and mutual respect. (Mishra & Mishra, 1993)

Signaling, through word and deed, can change others’ perceptions of you. It takes trust from the abstract to the concrete. Those trust-building conversations and trust-building actions have given others evidence to bolster what they feel.

I trust [we will get better.]

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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