Mental models for trust

Have you ever wondered how to build trust in your organization?

Trust consistently comes up as the number one predictor of a healthy, resilient, and productive organization. When employees trust one another, they are more likely to communicate openly and honestly, resolve conflicts faster, be supportive of each other, and more readily collaborate on common goals. In addition, trust creates a sense of safety and security that allows organizations to thrive even in the hardest of times.

Brené Brown, in her research, discovered that the ability to build trust within teams is one of four fundamental skills all successful leaders have.

But what exactly is trust? And how exactly do you build it?

Here, I present to you the mental models that will help you better understand what trust is and how to intentionally build it in your organization.

Four elements of trust

"Trust is choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person's actions." — Charles Feltman

Trust is ultimately a choice. According to Charles Feltman, we feel we can choose to trust another person when we believe:

  1. they care about others, not just themselves

  2. they are truthful and sincere; they say what they mean, and they mean what they say

  3. they are competent and able to deliver on their promises, and

  4. they are reliable and keep their promises consistently.

Trust is compromised if any one of these four elements is absent. Mathematically, we can represent it as:

Trust = Care x Sincerity x Competence x Reliability

If you wish to strengthen or repair trust, you must first understand where it’s broken—which of the four elements might be weak or absent—and focus your attention there.

For example, if a junior employee is not skilled enough to complete a task, a reasonable course of action might be to help them develop the necessary competencies.

Trust is not all or nothing

"We're never so vulnerable than when we trust someone. But paradoxically, if we cannot trust neither we can find love or joy." — Walter Anderson

It's easy to go from "I don't trust you with this situation" to "I don't trust you". But trust doesn't have to be all or nothing.

You might not trust your inexperienced employee to complete a difficult task. However, that doesn't mean they are not honest, reliable, and care about others.

It's almost always possible to choose not to rely on an individual in specific circumstances—for example, while repairing the trust—while trusting them with everything else.

Quality of trust changes with group size

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, proposed in the early 1990s that the number of people a person can have a stable trusting relationship with is around 150 folks.

Other sociologists also noticed that the quality of relationships changes with the size of the group. Various inflection points were suggested, such as five people, 15, 35, 150, 500, 1500, etc.

Although there's no wide consensus on these specific numbers or the reasons behind them, the scientists broadly agree that the size of the group affects the quality of the trust.

What this means in practice is that, for example, the same communication style that used to work when your company had only seven employees, and everybody trusted each other implicitly, is not likely to work when the company grows to 700 people.

The larger the group, the more intentional and explicit you must be about communicating company values and vision, setting expectations, and providing feedback.

Predictability and trust

Predictability is a strong contributor to trust.

Often, especially in times of great uncertainty, like an economic downturn, adding even a little bit of certainty can make a huge difference in your employee’s trust in the organization.

Don't ask people how they're doing when you know they are not okay. You might think you're expressing sympathy, but to them, you appear uncaring and incompetent. Tell them you know they’re not okay. And tell them what you’re doing to help.

Communicate frequently and reliably so that your employees never have to wonder when they will hear from you. Gossip and wild speculations spring to life in the absence of predictable communication. If there's nothing new, say you have nothing new, and then tell them when they should expect to hear from you again.