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The Five Levels of Trust
We like to think of trust as a binary judgment. We either trust someone or we don’t. If only. In reality, trust is a complex feeling replete with layers or levels that work to build a pyramid of connection with others. No wonder trust is so hard to create and so easy to lose.
At the most basic level, trust is the initial feeling we get when first meeting someone. What people say and do and how they say it or do it helps us to infer whether we can trust them in general.
Shortly thereafter, people begin to collect data about how reliable and consistent that person is. This constitutes level two. We prefer and trust people who are predictable in their actions, reactions, and responses.
We also listen closely for how veracious a person is. How much a person embroiders or exaggerates everyday truths influences how much we trust them.
Presuming we trust a person at the second level of reliability, in the workplace we then assess whether we believe in their competence to perform. When we trust that people have the skills and knowledge to perform well at what they do, we reach yet another level of confidence in them.
We don’t care as much about competence if they haven’t already reached levels one and two. In fact, we become suspicious of their true competence if they haven’t first convinced us they are both reliable and truthful.
With a smaller set of people, we reach the next level of emotional trust. At this fourth level, both parties feel safe and respected when they interact. Emotional trust encourages people to be candid, but also sensitive about what would make others uncomfortable. When team members trust leaders at the emotional level, they are much more accepting of feedback and willing to confront personal challenges. When leaders feel trusted at the emotional level, they are more likely to be vulnerable with others about their true feelings, doubts, and beliefs.
The last level of trust is the hardest to attain, especially for results-driven leaders. Reciprocal trust exists when both parties maintain the highest confidence in each other.
In particular, this fifth level of trust depends on the presumption that both people operate from good intentions and have pushed aside self-interest to support the relationship. When such reciprocity in trust exists between people, peer-like collaboration and open communication is the order of the day. People take risks and are more willing to innovate together when such a deep and mutual trust defines the relationship.
Unfortunately, or not, we can’t skip over one level to attain a higher level. We pass through every stage on our way to fully trusting another person or we get stuck at a given level. Through direct experience, demonstration, and observation, we both assess and earn our way up the trust ladder.
What level of trust do you experience with your team members? Trust that is fully reciprocated is the pinnacle of leadership success. Work hard to climb that high with as many team members, colleagues, and clients as you can.