What does it mean to have trust?

Recently, I have been working on a project with an organization that has identified the learning question “How might we build trust in and among the residents and organizations in our city?”  It’s such an exciting and rich body of work to be digging into with them. 

Trust is a topic that comes up again and again in my life and work and has for many years.  And, unsurprisingly for anyone who knows me, it means that I have amassed an array of resources on the topic that have shaped and informed my thinking.   Which is why, when I was doing some fieldwork for the organization who is thinking about building trust in their community, I realized it was necessary to take a step back and first provide some grounding and weave some connections between the thinking, framing, and research on trust.  Because, while we often talk about trust – when we have it and we don’t - less often do we take the time to understand and define trust and its characteristics.

This challenge with defining trust popped up earlier this year on one of my favorite podcasts, The Allusionist with Helen Zaltzman, when her guest Rachel Bootsman, self-identified trust expert and author of Who Can You Trust? stated (emphasis mine):

I thought it was going to be really easy to define trust. My definition of trust is: trust is a confident relationship with the unknown. Confidence is really at the heart of trust. But if you know the outcome of something, if there is no risk, you don't actually need trust. So what I was trying to pair it with is something unknown - the uncertainty piece. So it's this idea that we are placing our faith in someone or something or a system where you don't actually know the outcome and how it's going to work. When you think of it like that, it's like this alchemy of fears and hopes and desires, so it's got the high and the low, and that's what trust is made up of, it's this friction between these two things (episode / transcript).

Another definition of trust that I often reference comes from The Trusted Advisor, LLC which developed a rubric called The Trust Equation to try and describe and quantify trust:

In this framework, trustworthiness is the result of a mix of behaviors and feelings.  In the Trust Equation:

C stands for credibility—it speaks to words and credentials. R is reliability—how others perceive the consistency of our actions, and our actions’ connection with our words (integrity). I is intimacy—how secure or safe…[someone] feels sharing with us.  The lone term in the denominator is Self-Orientation, and it has a double meaning. Partly it’s about selfishness…[and it] is also about our attention, our focus. Are we listening to do a brain-suck, just to get data to pursue our own hypotheses and ends? Or are we listening to truly hear…? Are we obsessed by our own desires to succeed or win, and by our insecurities? Or do we truly focus on…paying attention to whatever it is that helps [others] succeed, or makes them insecure? Only the latter builds deep, long-term relationships. High numerator scores build trust: a high score in self-orientation destroys it.

The concepts in the Trust Equation has been reinforced by other research.  In the February 2019  Harvard Business Review article, The Three Elements of Trust the authors looked at 360 assessments of over 87,000 leaders to identify the three elements of trust which they described as “positive relationships” (aka intimacy), good judgment/expertise (aka credibility), and consistency (aka reliability).  They then went a step further and sought to “know if leaders needed to be skilled in all three elements to generate a high level of trust and whether any one element had the most significant impact on the trust rating.”

The authors found:

Intuitively we thought that consistency would be the most important element. Saying one thing and doing another seems like it would hurt trust the most. While our analysis showed that inconsistency does have a negative impact (trust went down 17 points), it was relationships that had the most substantial impact. When relationships were low and both judgment and consistency were high, trust went down 33 points. This may be because many leaders are seen as occasionally inconsistent. We all intend to do things that don’t get done, but once a relationship is damaged or if it was never formed in the first place, it’s difficult for people to trust.

In their article, Zenger and Folkman described a leader who is able to create positive relationships as someone who will:

  • Stay in touch on the issues and concerns of others.

  • Balance results with concern for others.

  • Generate cooperation between others.

  • Resolve conflict with others.

  • Give honest feedback in a helpful way.

These five behaviors also show up in one of the foundational texts on the topic, The Speed of Trust, in which Stephen Covey describes thirteen behaviors, when practiced consistently, that demonstrate high-trust relationships with others (though there are certainly more):

Stephen Covey’s work also looks at other types of trust beyond the kind between individuals.  He describes five waves of trust – 1) self trust, 2) relationship trust, 3) organizational trust, 4) market (or community) trust, and 5) societal trust. (Source: Invest Health Webinar: Building and Inspiring Trust as a Convenor)

As we think beyond building trust between individuals and organizations, to developing it within a collaboration and community, another useful (and graceful) way to think about trust in the work of making change in community and movements comes from adrienne maree brown’s book Emergent Strategy (page 41-2, emphasis is mine):

 Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection the small.)

Change is constant. (Be like water).

There is always enough time for the right work.

There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have.  Find it.

Never failure, always a lesson.

Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy).

Move at the speed of trust. Focus on the critical connections more than critical mass—build the resilience by building the relationships.

Less prep, more presence.

What you pay attention to grows.


The framing that trust is about resilience, not liking one another, being polite, or advoiding conflict feels particularly important to call out – particularly in community and movement-based work.  As David Ehrlichman, David Sawyer, & Jane Wei-Skillern wrote in Five Steps to Building an Effective Impact Network (emphasis is mine):

Sustained, authentic relationships are the foundation of all successful collaborative efforts. Cultivating trust intentionally, rather than passively, provides the basis for a culture in which network participants embrace the network principle of trust, not control…

Building trust doesn’t mean that people have to like each other or agree, but it does mean they have to be willing to engage in authentic and sometimes unpleasant conversations about the things that divide and challenge them, including gender, race, and power. The objective is to create trust for impact. This specific type of trust enables diverse actors to hold the tension through difficult conversations, find a slice of common ground, and work together, despite organizational differences and personal disagreements. Especially in volatile, emerging contexts, trust for impact must be rooted not just in shared purpose, but also in shared values and a shared understanding of how to behave and treat each other when disagreements inevitably arise.

Often the intentional practice of cultivating and maintaining relationships, and by extension trust is disregarded as a “soft skill.”  But, as these many thinkers, doers, and writers make clear, trust is not a “nice to have” when it comes to making positive and equitable social change.  It is, in fact, necessary.

What are your go-to resources on trust?  Let me know in the comments below or by tweeting your thoughts @AKGold11 using #optimisticanthro #trust