How to Build Trust in all your relationships

It may sound cliché, but trust is at the foundation of all relationships.  I do not think you can find a healthy, productive relationship (work or personal) that is based on mistrust.  Collaboration requires that you believe the other person is telling the truth, and is going to deliver on their promises.  Conflict comes from when you think the other person is lying, stabbing you in the back, or failing to deliver on promises.  While science shows that conflict in the workplace is a good thing, conflict caused by a lack of trust will only weaken the relationship. 

The difference between a good workplace and an unhealthy workplace isn’t a lack of conflict among the colleagues.  Instead, how you and your colleagues handle conflict is what separates a great place to work from a toxic environment.  Conflict between two colleagues who trust each other can be productive, collaborative, and result in an even better solution.  Conflict among two colleagues who do not trust each other will cause political turmoil, inefficiency, and most likely performance failures. 

When facing conflicts with a colleague, most of us hope it will get resolved on its own, by the other person, or maybe a manager helping to solve it. But I think that is passing the buck. I say we all need to take ownership of having healthy conflicts, and that means you need to be aware of how to build trust among your colleagues. Once we have trust, we can have healthy conflicts that will help our team, our department, and possibly even the whole company.

The 2 Types of Trust

How to Build Trust in all your relationships - image Trust-1 on

Person A = “I don’t trust you.”

Person B = “What have I done?  Cause from my viewpoint I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Trust is not always something easily defined.  If you ask different people, you are going to get different components of trust: fulfilling promises, credibility, or honorability.  But there is also an emotional component to trust, and we tend to place more trust in our family, our friends, or people that are “like us”.  It is for this reason that we split trust into two types: sensible trust and sensitive trust.

Sensible Trust

This is the practical side of trust. You come through on your promises, you aren’t seen as a liar, and you seem credible. This type of trust is often easy to build for most people. Here are some recommended ways to improve your sensible trust among colleagues.

Be responsive – Trust can be damaged when you are not responsive to emails or calls. The other person can’t see your mountain of paperwork and your 100 unread emails. They only see you not responding. Even if you can’t fully resolve the situation, it is better to respond back explaining that you will get to the situation by a certain time. This way the other person at least knows you will respond by a certain date.

Fulfill your promises – Less than 150 years ago, people still fought duels to defend their honor. While breaking promises does not lead to being shot at, all of us should strive for being perceived as 100% reliable and honorable. If you say you will respond by a certain date, then make sure you respond. Trust is quickly broken if you fail to live up to your word. If you have reliability issues, make sure to set a series of small promises that you know you can fulfill. That way you can build off a string of fulfilled promises.

Know what you are talking about – Credible people are more trustworthy, then people who don’t know what they are talking about. This is already intuitive to you, because you are more likely to trust your doctor about medical issues then you would your bank teller (unless she is also a doctor). The easiest way to build credibility is to ask smart questions that get to the heart of the matter. The only thing you want to avoid when building your credibility is your ego. It is all right to be smarter then everyone else in a certain field, but everyone will think you are a jerk if you remind them every 15 minutes.

Sensitive Trust

This is the emotional sides of trust. Often this is based on similarities, social cues, empathetic understanding. This side of trust is much harder to build. Here are the recommended ways to build sensitive trust:

Are you one of us? – Social norms play a big part in being seen as trustworthy. Teams tend to have a common approach or way of working with each other. Sometimes this comes across as jargon, acronyms, or technical talk. Other times it is expressed in the way the team members relate to each other, discuss personal issues, or even say hello or goodbye. From my personal experience I can remember when I was new to my Belgian team. Whenever you came to the office or left for the day you went and spoke to all of your colleagues. In the beginning this was not something I did, but soon I realized that I was not acting as part of the team. Just by changing how I greeted people I was able to build my sensitive trust.

Empathy – People trust in other people that can understand their perspective, and demonstrate empathy for the situation. To understand this better imagine the reverse of this situation. Would you have trust person who was cold or wasn’t concerned with your feelings? Even doctors who show empathy are more trusted than doctors who just stick to the ‘cold facts’.

Open up – You can build sensitive trust by opening up about yourself, and things that are intimate to you. Research has shown that people are more trusting of someone who had shared intimate secrets. This seems intuitive, as you are more likely to trust someone that has demonstrated trust for you. So next time you want the other person to trust you, start by opening your self and demonstrating you trust them first.

The Trust Equation

Trust is not something immediately given, and is based on many different factors.  At the same time, people believe they are more trustworthy than they are actually perceived.  Researchers have shown that self ratings of trustworthiness are always higher than other people’s ratings of the same person.  While this is usually a blow to the ego, it makes sense.  Only you know what is going on inside your head. In a situation you may know you plan on acting honorably to me, but I have no idea what you are thinking.  That uncertainty causes mistrust, even if only a little.

To better understand how you can build trust, we recommend using the trust equation:

Trust = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self Orientation

The first three components were explained in detail in the Sensible and Sensitive Trust section.

Credibility, Reliability, and Intimacy can build off each other, or even replace one another.  For example, think of surgeon you just met.  You have no special intimate relationship with this doctor, and you are not 100% sure on their reliability, but you can be certain of their credibility. 

But the first three components of trust, can be completely destroyed based on the perception of Self Orientation.

  • Self Orientation = Your willingness to put the other persons needs ahead of your own.  We all know the political backstabbers; the ones who will use whatever knowledge they gain to their advantage.  Trust can greatly be reduced if you perceive the other person as someone who only cares about him or herself. 

You can have the most well known credibility, have a great track record of reliability, and know the person intimately, but if you are perceived as only trying to help yourself then you won’t be trusted. 

The trust equation helps us understand how the different components of trust interact with each other, and what we can do to improve how people trust us. If you have credibility issues, then strengthen your reliability and intimacy of the situation. If you are perceived as a person who gets ahead off the backs of others, try and address that perception because no one is going to trust you no matter your credibility, reliability, or intimacy of the situation.

Actively build trust, don’t wait for it to form on its own.

A successful team is built off strong relationships, and there is no way you can succeed if your colleagues do not trust each other. Build your trust by how you relate to people (sensitive trust) and by having a proven track record (sensible trust).  You can also improve your trust by pulling the different levers of the trust equation.   Without the trust of your team you will not succeed.

Finally, take ownership of building the trust among your colleagues.  Instead of waiting for them to change so you can trust them.  Focus on yourself.  Be the role model in trust.  Trust in yourself to take the first step, and your colleagues will follow.

I would also like to give credit to the company who is the inspiration for this article on conflict.  I have had the pleasure to work with the international training company Mind Gym, which specializes in integrating best in class practices, science, and energetic activities into 90 minute training modules.  You might not think you can learn a lot in 90 minutes, but you would be wrong.  Mind Gym has created some of the best material I have ever worked with, and that is based on my experience running the training and development for 2 Fortune 500 companies. You can find more about them at:

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