Building trust

In organizations with high trust levels staff engage in honest, vigorous deliberations about important and sensitive topics, including strategy, budget cuts, ethics, equity, racism, discrimination, power, privilege, prejudice, interpersonal conflict, etc.

The word trust is used often but rarely defined. The word is thrown around as if everyone understands exactly what we mean. We attend countless meetings where “building trust” is emphasized. Building and restoring trust requires a thoughtful, systematic approach. To understand trust we must define it precisely. Trust is an aspect of relationships; it varies within and across relationships. Organizational trust researcher, Roger Mayer, defines trust as follows:1

“Trust is the willingness of a party [trustor] to be vulnerable to the actions of another party [trustee] based on the expectation that the other party will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party. … Making oneself vulnerable is taking a risk. Trust is not taking a risk per se, but rather it is a willingness to take risk.”

In short, trust is the willingness to be vulnerable to another party. Therefore, trust is a state of readiness to take risk in a relationship. Trust is the willingness to assume risk; behavioral trust (or a trusting action) is the assuming of risk. Our focus is on trust as a state of readiness (“willingness”). An organizational culture of trust is a culture where staff feel safe to tackle and vigorously debate the most challenging, sensitive topics in service of the organizational purpose.

Not appreciated by many is that trust is a decision.2 As an intuitive (gut) decision we experience trust as a feeling of safety. As an deliberative decision we experience trust as a feeling of confidence. In short, our objective is to influence others to trust us, our teams, and our organization. Therefore, our job as managers is

  1. to be trustworthy,
  2. to behave in ways that inspire trust, and
  3. to design systems that promote a culture of trust.

Building a culture of trust inspires better team collaboration, decision-making, execution, accountability, and performance. Here are The 7 Principles of Building Trust—these behaviors apply always, with anyone, and in any situation (think “C3 HATS”):

  1. C: Have character: honesty, integrity, fairness, and loyalty
  2. C: Be caring (show you care): readily help without expecting anything in return; do “acts of kindness” (
  3. C: Be competent: capable, consistent, and continuously improving
  4. H: Be humble: NewSmart Humility and Cultural Humility
  5. A: Be accountable: own your influence; own mistakes, apologize, and make amends
  6. T: Be transparent (clarity): communicate intent [what], motive [why], agenda [how: who, when, where], and expectations
  7. S: Ensure safety (emotional, physical, cultural): respect boundaries, be non-judgmental, assume good intent, etc.

Cool tip: Fastest way to build trust2

If you need a foolproof method to accelerate building trust with someone (e.g., your boss as the potential trustor), try this with genuine integrity and humility: “It’s really important to me that I earn your trust and confidence. Please tell me exactly what you need from me.” Ask for specifics and what success looks like. Write it down and review it with your potential trustor. Confirm mutual goals and expectations. Use the 7 Principles to deliver on your commitment(s). Don’t forget to develop a communication plan to communicate progress, problems, and to manage expectations.3

Do not confuse trust with confidence. Trusting someone is not equivalent to having confidence in them. Trust requires a risk of vulnerability. A corollary: earning others’ complete trust almost always earns confidence in you, but earning others’ confidence (e.g., in your abilities) does not mean they also trust you (i.e., willingness to be vulnerable to your actions).

The trustor’s propensity to trust is the predisposition or general willingness to trust before any information about the trustee is considered. At one extreme, a very high propensity to trust can result in extending trust even when it is not warranted (“blind trust”). At the other extreme, a low propensity to trust can result in not extending trust even when it is warranted (“blind mistrust”).

“Distrust” and “mistrust” have roughly the same meaning. Both mean lack of trust. But distrust is lack of trust based on experience or reliable information, while mistrust is often a general sense of unease toward someone or something.

Courage and trust involve vulnerability

Celebrating courage

Humility and trust are based in human relationships and involve vulnerability. Brené Brown defines vulnerability “as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” “Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable.”4 Any time someone risks vulnerability to get better, build trust, protect others, or behave ethically they are courageous! Therefore, we are surrounded by daily acts of unrecognized courage! Recognize and celebrate our courageous staff, clients, and communities!

Understanding empathy and compassion

With sympathy I care about your suffering. With empathy I feel your suffering. With compassion I want to relieve your suffering. Be aware and mindful: because of our implicit biases we are more likely to empathize with people “like us” (e.g., tribalism). Instead, we endeavor to have empathy for those unlike us, and to have compassion towards those who are vulnerable or suffering, and to act in the face of our vulnerabilities—this is courage.


  1. Mayer RC, Davis JH, Schoorman FD. Chapter 3: An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust. In: Kramer RM, editor. Organizational Trust; A Reader. Oxford University Press; 2007. p. 82–108. 

  2. Hurley RF. The Decision to Trust: How Leaders Create High-Trust Organizations. 1st ed. Jossey-Bass; 2011.  2

  3. A communication plan is just good basic project manangement. For details see Aragón TJ, Mier HM, Payauys T, Siador CS. Project Management for Health Professionals.; 2012. Available from Dropbox link 

  4. Brown B. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery; 2015.