What Does it Really Take to Build Trust?

When you look at all the relationships in your life – whether with friends, mentors, family members, or romantic partners – why is it that some feel easier and more solid than the rest?

Even when the relationships don’t look that different from each other on the surface, some may just ‘click’ more easily. Some may feel more productive, or communication may just flow more easily. Some relationships have a way of bringing out our best selves and our best work, while others feel like there are obstacles getting in the way of that ease and traction.

So what is it that makes the difference?

The truth is, there are tons of things that contribute to the health and success of any relationship – things like clear communication, respect, mutual buy-in, shared goals, and a willingness to compromise.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find a truly high-functioning relationship – the kind that brings out the best from everyone involved – that isn’t built on a strong foundation of trust.

What is trust, and how do we build it?

First, let’s define trust, with a little help from Merriam-Webster. Trust is assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”

Put another way: I think of trust as the lens we use to see and understand people, and our relationships with them. It might be the single most powerful thing that determines how we feel about others (and how they feel about us), how we interpret what they say and do, and how deeply we’re willing to engage, take risks, share personal details, or be vulnerable with them.

When we think about trust and what it looks like, we often jump ahead to after it’s been violated. We often focus on mistrust – and questions like how to rebuild trust once it’s been betrayed, or why our gut is warning us not to trust someone whose intentions seem a little shady.

But it’s less common to think about what it is that creates that feeling of trust (or a lack thereof) in the first place.

Breaking down the trust equation

A few years ago at our company's annual staff retreat, our facilitator led us through some group exercises around trust, teamwork, and conflict styles. As a company, we’re constantly working on new teams with different combinations of colleagues and clients, so understanding why some of those relationships succeed and thrive more easily than others was both relevant, and eye-opening.

Up until that retreat, I’d thought of trust as just a simple, necessary ingredient relationships need to be strong and sustainable. It had never really occurred to me that trust could be more than just a simple component in a healthy relationship.

But according to the authors of The Trusted Advisor, trust itself is actually a complex and highly personal equation, consisting of four main variables arranged in the following way:


In other words, a highly-trustworthy person has high levels of reliability, credibility, and intimacy – with a low level of self orientation.

Let’s take a second to break down those terms:

  • Reliability is tied to actions, and whether someone does what they said they would do. Can you depend on this person to do what they promised? Are they dependable? On time? Consistent?

  • Credibility is tied to words, and whether someone has the knowledge and experience to back up what they say. Does this person know what they’re talking about? Do they give good advice? Do you believe what they tell you?

  • Intimacy is tied to emotional safety, and whether there is a safe space for emotions to enter. Do you feel comfortable sensitive information with this person? Do they make you feel supported? Are you sure your confidentiality won’t be violated? Do you trust their intentions?

The three traits above are all areas where a higher score means someone is more trustworthy.

On the other hand, self-orientation refers to how focused someone is on themselves and things that benefit them, vs. others. Empathy, generosity, and compassion all come into play here. Can you trust this person to prioritize the good of the team over themselves? How heavily do they weigh the needs of others when they make decisions?

Self-orientation is the denominator in this equation for a reason. The lower someone’s self orientation – or, the less focused they are on just themselves – the more trustworthy they become.

Using the Trust Equation to build trust in relationships

There are plenty of articles out there that dive into how each of these things matter in business and in leadership, and even how to make yourself more trustworthy to your colleagues and clients. And that’s all well and good.

But here’s what I found even more interesting, that doesn’t get talked about nearly as often: while the general equation for trust is pretty universal – in other words, most of us need a combination of those three things plus a low self-orientation to find someone trustworthy – it turns out different people value each of these components to different degrees.

Trust isn’t just a complex thing, it's also highly individualized.

For me, discovering which ones I valued most helped me understand and validate why trust was so much more present, and easier to build in some of my relationships than others.

Not surprisingly, I perform my best in relationships where there’s a high level of intimacy. And now that I know that about myself, when I look back and start pointing out which personal and professional relationships in my life have been most and least successful, it all starts to make more sense.

It’s no longer a mystery to me why I struggled to do my best work for the supervisor who brashly announced to a room full of gentle introverts that she, “doesn’t care if you're nice – just do what you say you’re gonna do.” It’s clearer to me now why a relationship where I was regularly accused of “overreacting” or being “so emotional” left me feeling constantly, and deeply disconnected from my partner. And, it makes sense to me when I look at my closest, most successful relationships and notice distinct similarities:

A safe space for sharing emotions.
Connection and understanding.
Lots of “me too”s.  

In other words, the relationships in my life where intimacy is a priority, and where it feels safest to show up as my whole self with my full range of emotions are the relationships that feel the most solid, and bring out the best in me.

Understanding this is powerful.

It’s not that I don’t value or weigh the other pieces of the equation, like reliability or credibility – but knowing which components are most important to me is power. And it gives me a clearer understanding of what I need for my relationships of all kinds to thrive over the long haul.


Understanding what your own personal recipe for trust looks like helps you build stronger, most productive relationships - and see more clearly when you're not getting what you need.  


Of course, there’s real value in looking at the trust equation in the more ‘traditional’ sense, to help you assess your own trustworthiness and how you can become more trustworthy to different kinds of people. But I believe it also has more to teach us than that.

A challenge for you:

This week, I want to challenge you to think about each of the pieces of the trust equation – reliability, credibility, intimacy, and self-orientation – and reflect on which ones make the highest impact in your relationships.

One way to do this is to look at some of the relationships in your life – with friends, partners, colleagues, mentors, family members, etc. – that feel the most productive, easy, and solid… and then look at others where you feel more tension, strain, or resistance.

Consider the ways reliability, credibility, intimacy, and self-orientation show up (or fail to) in those relationships. What make the difference for you? Are there patterns?

Another way to look at this is to determine in what ways you yourself are most trustworthy – as there’s almost always a connection between the ways we demonstrate trustworthiness, and the ways we interpret it from others.

There’s a free online assessment that can help you determine your own Trust Quotient, if that helps get your wheels turning.

Keep in mind: this isn’t meant to make you beat yourself up about the areas where you may be weaker. Instead, see if you can let this teach you something new about the different ways trust can be built, and what you need to create a solid foundation of trust in each of your relationships.

What do you think?

If you had to guess, which one or two components of the trust equation are more important for you? Did this trigger an “aha!” moment for you? Leave a comment below to let me know!