The 3 Elements of Trust

“Do you trust me?” This can be an emotionally charged question, yet it can be a tremendously constructive one, too. In our work we have found that getting clarity on the reasons why you do (or don’t) trust someone is just as important as the answer itself.

Unpacking trust

As leaders, we like to listen for cues about the dynamics or strength of a team or a relationship. In a similar way, you can listen for cues about why you do – or don’t – trust a person or team. Whether you’re debating a strategy, debriefing after a big meeting or figuring out which tactics will get your company furthest fastest to meeting a customer need, unpacking trust to understand its components is very powerful. You can get to the root cause or move forward when you’re concerned about the existing level of trust and want something better or stronger for everyone involved.

There are three main elements of trust. Being able to consider each of the elements independently takes the emotional charge out of the word, leaving room for a constructive conversation.

1. Motive.
It’s probably the biggest part of most people’s definition of trust. Motive is the thing that causes a person to act a certain way. In order to trust someone, I have to know that they have my best interests at heart. If I think that we are both working toward a shared goal or value, I can trust why they act the way they do, or why they might have made decisions in the manner that they did.

2. Capability.
This is all about skill – the raw, potential or established ability to do the thing that lies ahead. A person or group who has a strong motive and has my best interest at heart, must also possess the required capability.  If not, they’re probably not the best fit for the task at hand. A friend once said to me, “I love my mother, but I shudder to think what would happen if she did my taxes.” In his story, trust based on motives – yes. On capability? Not so much.

3. Reliability.
This one’s the simplest. Can I depend on you to do what you say you’re going to do, show up when you say you’ll show up, and be the same person day in and day out? When a person brings consistency to the table in these ways, you can count them as reliable.

In the opportunities we’ve had to work with teams of leaders concerning the issue, unpacking trust to reveal its three components has been very helpful.

Who do you trust?

The easiest thing to do with the three components of trust is to simply consider them individually the next time you find yourself thinking, “I’m not so sure I trust…” a person or team. We often help groups come together to in a comfortable but direct way to consider each other as members of a team, while keeping in mind the three elements.

By keeping each of these components in your pocket, you’ll be able to think through the issue and move forward, instead of getting caught up in a less constructive, more emotional conversation. For example, a discussion is much more likely to end productively if it begins with, “When you said xyz in our team meeting on Tuesday, it made me question if we’re on the same page about my goals” than if it starts with “Why did you say xyz?” or worse (!) “I don’t think I trust you.”

Next time you find yourself in the seemingly murky waters of trust, break it down into the three separate questions: Do I trust this person to have my back? Are they capable of providing the best work needed for the job? And, can I trust them to show up every day, acting in a consistent manner?

Do you see these three components at work in matters of trust?

Note: photo by genvessel via FlickR Creative Commons