Trust is critical for you, your team and your organization

Trust is critical for you, your team and your organization

It has long been understood that trust has value.  In response to an open-ended question about the importance of trust, leaders we interview overwhelmingly state that trust is either “important,” “extremely important,” or “the most important thing” for them as leaders.  But why does it seem that everyone’s talking about trust these days?

Surveys like the Edelman Trust Barometer indicate that trust is at its lowest levels ever. This is particularly true for trust (or lack thereof) in leaders and in institutions.  Maybe our recent interest in the topic of trust is just nostalgia, people sitting around the coffee table saying, “Remember when we used to trust each other?  Those were good times.”  But I believe it’s more than that.  We are more aware of the need for trust because of its absence, but we are also becoming increasingly aware of the value it has.  And that value is itself also increasing, not merely because of the scarcity of trust, but because trust is the key to resolving some of the world’s biggest, hairiest problems.

At Trust Unlimited (TU), we define trust as the willingness to make yourself vulnerable to another when you can’t completely predict how they will act.  This definition includes elements of uncertainty and of vulnerability.  Essentially, the more that you trust someone, the more willing you are to be vulnerable and the more vulnerable you are willing to be.  That may be a bit confusing, so I’ll try to clarify with a specific example.  In a given situation, say sharing information or revealing what you really think, you’re more likely to share with people you trust; you’re more willing to be vulnerable to them.  And you are likely to share more information and potentially more personal things with those you trust more deeply; you’re willing to be more vulnerable to them.

With the above definition of trust in mind, let’s look at why trust has value and how it helps make things better. We can talk about the value of trust in different settings: from improvements in our personal relationships, to impacts on global issues, and everything in between.  Let’s start at the personal level and build from there.

Trust at the individual level

In addition to the extensive research that has found that trust helps us with our interpersonal relationships, common sense also tells us that we will likely get along better with our partner, our friends, our colleagues, and our boss if we trust each other more.  This becomes particularly true if we are in a leadership position.  The higher we rise in an organization, the less direct control we tend to have over organizational outcomes.  As we move up the corporate ladder, we become increasingly dependent on those we lead.  Our goals, hopes, dreams, and aspirations all depend on the efforts of others.  We are interdependent with those we lead, and while they are vulnerable to us and the decisions we make, we are also vulnerable to them and the actions they take.

We are vulnerable to one another in multiple ways as individuals. We make ourselves vulnerable by sharing information, investing in relationships, or helping one another out with the belief such help will be reciprocated when we need it. We can also become vulnerable when we are working together on a project, when we invest effort and time against some future outcome with the belief that others are also working towards that goal and we will all share in the eventual rewards.  Building trust with others at an individual level means they are more willing to cooperate, share what really matters to them, or offer a heads up about opportunities or problems.

Trust plays a significant role in virtually all hiring and promotion decisions.  When we hire or promote someone, we are making ourselves vulnerable to them.  We invest time, energy, and resources into training and developing them.  We give them access to information and the ability to impact our organization.  We also bring them into a significant portion of our lives as we will be spending a lot more time with them once they have been brought on board or moved up the corporate ladder.

Trust acts as a social lubricant, and those who are better at building it tend to move through life with greater ease.  There are fewer misunderstandings.  People good at trust-building tend to resolve conflicts more quickly and to greater advantage for all concerned.  In part, this is because those who are more trusted tend to receive the benefit of the doubt.

We say and do things all day every day and, unless we take extreme pains to clearly explain our motives and intentions, those actions and words are open to the interpretation of those around us.  People interpret the world through stories.  If they trust us and have a positive story about us, they look for evidence to support that positive story.  The reverse is true if they don’t trust us and have a negative story.  If we can build trust with others, we build a more positive story with them, and they interpret our actions in a positive way.  This means we don’t have to spend as much time explaining ourselves or dealing with backlash from misunderstandings.

The value of trust extends well beyond professional settings. Imagine having a strong, positive, trusting relationship with your kids.  When you ask them questions about what they are doing, where they are going, or what’s going on, they don’t roll their eyes, get annoyed or avoid the questions.  They assume you are asking not because you want to control them, but instead because you care and want to be helpful if you can.  Imagine that they interpret your suggestions as an attempt to help them be better people and that they appreciate those thoughts and comments.  Imagine that they come to you, the person who cares most about them, when they are struggling or things are going wrong, instead of going to one of their friends who has as little experience or insight as they do.  Now imagine that all of your relationships are like that.  That’s the value of trust at an individual level.

Trust at the team level

Often when we think about high-performing teams, we think about highly structured, specialized teams like a surgical team, or a car racing pit crew, or a military unit, or a great sports team that rose above the odds to achieve larger than life goals.  Each of these examples exists in a highly structured environment with clearly defined rules, roles, and goals.  These teams are surrounded by history, experience, and support structures, they have clear guidelines that determine what success looks like, and as a result they have a clear view of the skills and abilities needed to be successful.

These teams are the exception rather than the rule.  Most teams in communities and organizations have little to no structure, and there is no rulebook, no clarity regarding what success looks like.  At best, if everyone is doing their job, they may have some common goal, outcome or objectives they are working towards; they may also have some loose guidelines on how to act and behave depending on the context.

Teams are highly interdependent: they plan work, solve problems, make decisions, and review progress in service of a specific project or operational context. Team members need one another to get work done.

Many of the teams that exist in organizations face shifting structures, internal and external forces of change that often muddy the team’s goals and objectives.  Add to this changes in organizational priorities, leadership, and personnel turnover and we begin to understand why we search for and crave structures to help guide success.  Unfortunately, such structures often lead to the bureaucracy and rigidity that prevent individuals and teams from adapting to a changing organizational landscape.

When trust is present in teams, team members step into problems, they voice their opinions, they challenge ideas, and they work together and communicate effectively. Trust is the key that frees members of the team to act in the best interest of the group without fear.  Being worried about others’ reactions to what they say or do keeps many from acting at all.  In a high trust environment, not only do we feel supported to voice our thoughts, we also know that if we are struggling with a task, we will find support.   Google conducted a two-year study of team effectiveness, the Aristotle Project, which identified five factors essential to team performance.  In the table below these five factors are mapped onto the elements of uncertainty and vulnerability of TU’s Trust Model.  (Items in parentheses in the table are components of uncertainty and vulnerability that are part of the TU Trust Model but beyond the scope of this paper.)

Aristotle ProjectTU Trust Model
1.      Psychological safety – the ability to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each otherVulnerability
2.      Dependability – the ability to get things done on time to a high qualityUncertainty (Ability and Integrity)
3.      Structure and clarity – roles, plans and goalsUncertainty (Context)


4.      Meaning – work that is important to team membersUncertainty (Benevolence and Integrity)
5.      Impact – the perception that the team’s work matters and creates changeUncertainty (Benevolence) and Vulnerability


Research shows that teams function more effectively with higher trust levels.  They tend to be more efficient, more productive and more successful.  Some of this improved performance stems from the reduced need for monitoring and the ability of team members to focus on their own tasks without worrying about others completing theirs.  Innovation is essential for developing solutions to problems, adapting a product or building a new one.  When people don’t share their ideas and speak freely, that gets in the way of creativity, good decision making and learning.  Without trust, innovation does not happen.

Trust and Organizational Culture

Building a strong culture within an organization is challenging.  It can seem a fragile affair, but trust has the tendency to make a strong organizational culture both more possible and more resilient.  Building trust within an organization is definitely worth the effort. The link between trust and organizational performance has been clearly established in the research.  In a high trust environment people will work harder, work through disagreements, take smarter risks and stay with the company longer, all of which improves the bottom line of the corporation. In the article the Neuroeconomics of Trust, people at companies with high levels of trust experienced 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement and 40% less burnout than people at companies with lower trust levels. The business case for creating a trustworthy culture continues to be made compellingly, yet it is rarely acknowledged or implemented.

The fragility of positive organizational cultures results from the sheer volume of potential “bad actors” or “bad actions.” Let’s look at some examples and see how trust plays a role.

First, let’s consider the situation where a supervisor habitually expresses contempt for management decisions.  In a low trust environment, the expression of contempt can spread like a virus, and if unchecked, employees who work for the supervisor and peers of the supervisor will spread that contempt.  In an environment of high trust, an expression of contempt would lead others to ask questions and try to understand someone’s dissatisfaction.  Attempts to remedy or act on that perspective would ensue, mitigating the potential negative impact on organizational culture.

Another common organizational problem today is a lack of employee engagement.  In low trust environments, an employee can go days or weeks without really expressing themselves, in a mode of self-preservation, not asking questions, not admitting to mistakes, not offering up ideas and not learning or improving.  In a high trust environment, disengagement would cause someone to notice and ask what is wrong, pulling the disengaged person out of their mode of self-preservation and into a conversation about the meaning and importance of their job, getting at the underlying tensions and perceptions that led to the withdrawal.

These are a couple of examples that plague organizational culture today; often, as leaders, we feel inadequate in our ability to do anything about such large, complex problems.  However, we all have the power to build trusting relationships; we need to learn the language of trust and pass it on to others. In doing so, we send a positive boost to our organizational culture.  This builds resilience and is in everyone’s control.

High trust organizations are more productive and innovative.  They cultivate trust by being clear, by setting a direction and communicating broadly, by making themselves vulnerable and holding people to account without micromanaging them.  The science is clear: trust is no longer just a “nice to have,” it has become essential for organizations who want to attract and retain the best people and achieve great results.

Trust at a global level

In January 2020, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated that the world was suffering from a bad case of “trust deficit disorder” jeopardizing global trade and collaboration.  In his view, this has put the UN’s charter to promote and maintain global peace and security at risk.  The former CEO of the multinational software company SAP, Bill McDermott, has described trust as the ultimate human currency and believes the world may be at a breaking point with respect to trust.

Clearly, these leaders believe that trust is a vital component for the world to function and perform at its best.  The book “The Future is Faster Than You Think” by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis supports this idea.  The book outlines some truly remarkable technological advancements that could have a profound impact on humanity and the issues we are struggling with.  The greatest barrier to the adoption of these advancements, in the opinion of the authors, is the potential lack of human collaboration, due to a lack of trust.

Despite a clear sense that trust matters at a societal or global level, for a broad array of leaders in industry and politics we are seeing some of the lowest trust levels ever recorded.  This is particularly true for political leaders.  When trust levels become too low, democracy or other forms of governance are put at risk.  These forms of governance tend to work best in high trust environments because they rely on everyone playing by the rules; in the absence of trust they require massive investments in monitoring and policing.  If people start to believe that the rules aren’t fair or don’t apply to everyone, they tend to stop obeying the rules unless forced to.

Lower trust levels also lead to a decline in how well regions respond in times of crisis.  In 2020, a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather events, and protests over police activity and racism subjected many people to significant stress.  These situational phenomena, combined with growing polarization within communities, strained relations between nations, and seemingly relentless technological change provoked a massive spike of uncertainty for everyone.  Remembering that trust is a combination of uncertainty and vulnerability, the rise of uncertainty has created a challenging environment in which to build trust.

Resolving problems like pandemics, climate change, world hunger, and other global threats requires collective collaborative action.  That means that we all need to pull together – and that’s only going to happen if we figure out how to trust each other.

For the pandemic, we saw some areas of the world have far better results than others.  There seemed to be a strong link between how well regions did and their levels of trust in science, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), or their own governments.  Countries like New Zealand or South Korea that actually followed the CDC playbook and seemed to trust their government did remarkably well in comparison to others.  This story will continue to play itself out as populations with higher trust levels will more likely get vaccinated and eliminate the pandemic more quickly.  The rollout of vaccines in such locations will likely occur in a more orderly fashion, as people won’t be scrambling to be first in line or attempting to game the system because they trust that the system will serve the greater good.

The intent of this article was to argue that trust has value and to show some ways in which that value manifests.  We have looked at four levels and argued that trust matters for us as individuals, as teams, as organizations, and at a broader societal/global scale.  While many now seem to agree that trust is important, the conversations still seem very vague; tools like the TU Trust Model can put things into better focus by providing a more concrete framework and language for such conversations.  Having a better understanding of the specific ways trust impacts all of us will hopefully lead to an increased appetite to actually do something about it.


The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives 2020 Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler New York, NY : Simon & Schuster

The Enemies of Trust 2003 Robert M. Galford and Anne S. Drapeau Feb 2003 Harvard Business Review

The Neuroeconomics of Trust 2005 Paul J. Zak 10.2139/ssrn.764944 SSRN Electronic Journal

The five keys to a successful Google team 2015 Julia Rozovsky


Darryl Stickel, the Trust Guru

Eric Lott Trust and Team Coach

Meet Darryl

Darryl is one of the world’s leading experts on Trust.  He teaches leaders how to find and use their most powerful tool.  A tool that is always in a leader’s control, how to effectively build Trust in their relationships.