Want a Successful Workplace Team? Start with the Trust Factor


What makes you trust someone? Is it that you believe they’re competent? That you feel safe with them? That they’re well-meaning and want to help?

You might say, It depends. Or, one of these possibilities feels much more important to you than another. Is it possible that someone else might have a completely different set of factors for trusting that same person?

These simple questions have already uncovered a lot of layers, wouldn’t you say? That’s why we say that building trust in a team is an ongoing process that is as complex as the varying personalities, backgrounds, and experiences of each and every member. You just have to look around your own workplace, school, community group, or even in your family, to see how this can be true.

The key finding in our ongoing research on trust is that we don’t all trust or distrust for the same reasons. And most of us are not aware that this is true - we’re often not aware of our own trust factors, let alone anyone else’s! However, how we make those choices becomes an important factor in how we will deal with each other in our relationships, whether individually or in a group. So, knowing the factors that inform how we choose to trust is key to understanding how to build a high-performing team.

What are Trust Factors?

A trust factor is a piece of data used to determine the level of trust to apply to a situation or person. Through a review of research in this field and our experience with teams, we have narrowed the factors that influence trust into the following:

Benevolence - The quality of being well-meaning with the intent to help.

Competence - Having the skills, aptitude, and abilities to accomplish a task or reach an objective.

Integrity / Character - Aligns with the principles of honesty, sincerity, good intent, strong moral principles and respect. The “character” of someone or something.

Listening / Curiosity - The quality of hearing and paying attention in order to understand.

Meets Expectations - What is stated happens. There is clarity in what is promised and what is delivered.

Openness / Accuracy - Communication is open and accurate. Straight talk and transparency exist while secrecy or concealment does not.

Rules / Laws & Consequences - Rules, laws, and consequences are in force such that the risk of a situation is predictable.

Relative Power / Authority - The influence we have over someone or something, or influence that he/she/it has over us.

Safety - The condition of, or threat of, physical and/or psychological harm does not exist.

Similarity / Affinity - Our experiences of similarity or affinity with others or things.

These factors are the core of the assessment and exercise we are using with teams to provide them with a road map to having deep conversations that build trust.

The assessment piece involves ranking the Trust Factors at play for the respondent in a given scenario. An immediate benefit they report is a new awareness of all the factors that can go into making the choice to trust someone.

As we work with the team, the real learning often comes in the conversations that follow.  

For one team, all but one member lined up in the assessment with similar factors ranked at or near the top. One person found the ‘outlier’s’ response surprising:  “Why did you pick that factor as your top one? It’s last on my list!”  The outlier was equally surprised by their responses, that they would put those factors at the top. There were some big “why?” moments in the conversation, and new perspectives arose: “My gosh, I never thought of it that way, that’s really interesting!” These were people who have known each other a long time, and a new way of looking at each other emerged in a really positive way.

On another team, members were surprised to learn that they each had trust, but not as much as they wanted to, in their Board of Directors. This learning prompted them to ask, “I wonder if the Board trusts us?” And, “Why wouldn’t they? Oh, maybe this is one reason why we’re having an issue around [x].” Some important new agreements came out of this process, which significantly shifted the organizational culture.

Integrity and Character

Another interesting observation we’ve made from assessment responses as well as on-site work with teams, is that one particular factor pops up most often (still collecting data on this): Integrity/Character. Frank Sonnenberg’s book, Morality: Character Matters, seems to support this idea. He says: “When you have good character, people know that your behavior is reliable, your heart is in the right place, and your word is good as gold.”

A Trust Factor that often is ranked near the bottom is Rules/Laws/Consequences, except in the scenario given in the assessment that involves a police officer or other official. It’s too early to speculate on the reasoning behind this trend, but one contributor from Psychology Today might agree: “A person's role or status...doesn't determine their trustworthiness. A person at the top of an organization isn't inherently more or less worthy of trust than someone in an entry-level position. Trust is about individuals, not groups.”

Why is this important to an organization and its teams? The last statement describes it well: “Trust is about individuals, not groups.”  The goal is to build cohesive, high-performing teams with conflict competency that engenders new ideas and creative, cutting-edge solutions. The foundation of, and direct correlation, is a team that trusts.