It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This is a well-used expression describing the advantages of developing strong networks to further one’s cause. While many people take pride in achieving success independently, the truth is that they are less likely to succeed without support. One of the main ways to build such a network is by nurturing trusting relationships. Trust acts as a catalyst, encouraging communication, collaboration, and strengthening the performance of those involved . As a by-product, trust enables more human connections, meaning individuals who make an effort to build trust benefit from stronger networks.
Harvard Business Review confirmed that trust is the most important capital for empowering leaders . Leaders rely on the support of their team to meet targets and to make an impact that they could not possibly do on their own. This is achieved by building an environment based on trust which empowers others to be their best selves and to do their best work. For this reason, understanding how to build trust is vital in maximising one’s impact.
What is trust?
A common theme in the research is that trust requires a “willingness to take risks” . This is the key to defining what trust is. Previous managers that I have worked with defined trust as “knowing how someone will behave” or “having confidence that someone will deliver in a way that they expect”. In other words, whether or not they decide to trust someone is dependent on how confident they are in predicting the end result. Because of this, trust is often associated with predictable or reliable people. People who have a history of delivering on what is expected of them are more likely to be trusted.
It takes a great deal of effort to trust someone when you don’t know what the end result will be, this is the reason many people prefer to trust reliable people. The level of trust it takes to depend on a reliable person is small, we are confident we can predict their actions. This means the road to higher levels of trust requires a person to let go of control and leave themselves vulnerable. Famous business writer Patrick Lencioni applies this to teams, outlining that trust is being confident that your peers' intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around them. For a team to be effective, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable. When this is achieved, opinions, ideas, and information are more readily shared which leads to better solutions. From another perspective, a person who doesn’t trust their team will be unlikely to share any new ideas that go against the status quo. They are also less likely to ask for help out of fear that they will be judged on their ability. Alternatively, a trusting team is aware of each members strengths and weaknesses, and support each other in achieving results. The team acts as a concentrated support network which greatly increases the performance of each individual and overall wellbeing.
In essence, trust is about encouraging opening up in relationships so that the people around you are better able to support you. For this reason, learning how to build trusting relationships is necessary to succeed.
The road to building trust
Building trust takes time and effort. People are generally hesitant to trust until they feel the benefits are worth the risk of opening up. To begin the process, research suggests achieving small wins . For example, if someone at work opens up to you about a problem they are having, and you respond positively and support them through it non-judgmentally, then you have the start of a positive interaction. If you were to follow that interaction with your own request for support, they would likely be excited to help you. Both of these people have put themselves in a vulnerable position, which is the start of developing trust. Frequent small wins like this will encourage further collaboration and a stronger relationship overall.
This approach also applies to leaders and managers. Shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown asked leaders what the number one decider was when it came to whom they trusted . The most popular response was whether the other person asks them for help. However, when this was turned around, very few of these leaders were willing to ask for help themselves. Leaders are generally hesitant to appear less than perfect, to appear vulnerable.
In order to garner trust leaders should not be afraid to show their vulnerability. This does not mean letting loose all your demons and emotions without a filter. As outlined in the research, consistent small wins grows trust over time. For example, a manager has a meeting with a new team member. The manager asks how the onboarding process is going, but the team member hesitantly smiles saying everything is fine. One possibility is that the manager stops there and the discussion goes no further. Alternatively, the manager could share some of the difficulties they experienced when they first joined the team. This moment of shared vulnerability encourages the team member to open up about their own difficulties, confident that they are not going to be judged. Small steps like this build a culture of trust which empowers people to perform at their best.
In summary, trust is the confidence to take risks in establishing meaningful connections with others. Rather than fighting to remain independent and self-sufficient, people would benefit from investing time in building a network based on trust. The benefits including: higher levels of commitment from others and better cooperation will lead to improved performance overall . Professionals, managers, and leaders alike should take the risk to create such networks in order to reach their full potential.
In the end, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
My personal tips for building trust and maintaining it
Building trust takes time, but it can be shattered in a moment. When going about building trust, the key is to do small consistent actions over a period of time [1,2].
• Maintain confidentiality; this is the biggest breach of trust and can be the most damaging to relationships.
• Make your actions explicit and carry them out, don’t overpromise. In the end, people trust reliable people more easily. Consistency is the key here.
• When someone opens up to you about a problem they are having, consider sharing a time where you have also experienced difficulty. These moments of shared vulnerability encourage deeper connection.
• Tit for tat: With people whom you don’t trust, offer a small amount of vulnerability by asking for support. If the other person does not reciprocate then don’t pursue it further. The idea is to demonstrate to the other person that a trusting relationship is more beneficial. Get ready to try again when some significant time has passed.
• Reward vulnerability in meetings and protect those who exhibit these behaviours from team members who would take advantage of it. Call out negative responses as unacceptable.
Do you have any more suggestions for building trust? I’d love to know about them.
 Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong. Random House.
 Burke, C. S., Sims, D. E., Lazzara, E. H., & Salas, E. (2007). Trust in leadership: A multi-level review and integration. The leadership quarterly, 18(6), 606-632.
 Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss. (2020, August 27). Everything Starts with Trust. RetrievedOctober 12, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2020/05/begin-with-trust
 Jawahar, I. M., Stone, T. H., & Kluemper, D. (2019). When and why leaders trust followers: LMX as a mediator and empowerment as a moderator of the trustworthiness-trust relationship. The Career Development International.
 Johnson-George, C., & Swap, W. C. (1982). Measurement of specific interpersonal trust: Construction and validation of a scale to assess trust in a specific other. Journal of personality and social psychology, 43(6), 1306.
 Lencioni, P. (2006). The five dysfunctions of a team. John Wiley & Sons.
 Malhotra, A., Majchrzak, A., & Rosen, B. (2007). Leading virtual teams. Academy of Management perspectives, 21(1), 60-70.
 Searle, R., & Skinner, D. (Eds.). (2011). Trust and human resource management. Edward Elgar Publishing.
 Vangen, S., & Huxham, C. (2003). Nurturing collaborative relations: Building trust in interorganizational collaboration. The Journal of applied behavioral science, 39(1), 5-31.