Cycle of Trust

Relational trust and organizational trust are dependent on four key stages we call the cycle of trust. Relational trust refers to the ways individuals form relationships necessary for the organization to function as a whole in pursuit of its intended purpose. Organizational trust refers to the ways that individuals outside the organization (customers, shareholders and other stakeholders) come to trust the organization without knowing if it possesses all of the essential parts needed to fulfill its purpose.

A cycle is a series of events that are often repeated in the same order. Trust, as a natural cycle, includes four key events:

  • Extending trust: The trustor (the person extending trust) chooses to extend trust. It is the actualization of the trustor’s attitude and judgment through choice (or surrender) toward another person or thing.
  • Building trust: Inspiring, gaining and influencing others’ attitudes and judgments of trust through communication (verbal, written, behavioral, etc.).
  • Sustaining trust: Reinforcing trust on the deepest level through adherence to the recognized principles and the ethics of the organization.
  • Restoring trust: The process of restoring not the trust itself, but the communications that support trust.

The cycle of trust is like any physical workout: It must be eased into carefully to avoid flexing the muscles beyond their ability. In other words, each person first extends trust only to the extent that he or she is freely able to do so. As both trustor and trustee successfully complete each step of the cycle, their trust relationship can be flexed to accommodate greater capacities.

Of course, we must continue to extend trust to develop the trust relationship, but we can also withdraw or begin to qualify the trust we have extended. The second step of the trust cycle, building trust, occurs through continued communications that inspire, gain and influence others’ attitudes and judgments of trust. As we practice these first two steps, we layer on the third, sustaining trust. This step includes a notable addition: The trustor must demonstrate that he or she operates from recognized organizational principles and ethics. While this cycle of trust serves to establish healthy trust relationships, it is never truly complete because it grows through repeating the four stages of extending, building, sustaining and—since no one is perfect—restoring trust when necessary.

Leaders, in particular, must seek meaningful ways to extend, build and sustain trust with others. A practical way to think about trust is to distinguish between how we tend to trust ourselves versus how we tend to trust others. Most people form intentions based on trust in their self-perceived ability to follow through and achieve the intended aim. If a leader mis-judges his own decision-making abilities, even his self¬-trust can be damaged (and rightly so) until he reflects and re-examines the mistake. And, since our actions are the best indication of our nature, followers also distrust a leader who fails to achieve his or her intended results.

Once we understand that others extend trust to us based our actions, then we realize the importance of delivering the necessary results. When these results are good, trust relationships deepen and trust is sustained because the leader’s intent aligns with his or her actions. This understanding is critical for allowing us to extend trust in situations where explicit direction or verifiable results aren’t always available. Of course, no leader is perfect; we all make mistakes or willfully harm others, breaking or damaging trust as a result. In these cases, leaders must both apologize for the damage done and work to restore the trust, using the trust cycle to flex and build the trust relationship.

The best teams build trust because they act on the leader’s intent—empathy is a strong dynamic at work. Followers know what the leader needs, and align their actions accordingly. Reciprocally, the leader understands followers’ intentions, and sustains their trust by ensuring his or her actions and results are aligned with meeting followers’ needs.

This article was originally featured in Trust Inc.: 52 Weeks of Activities and Inspirations for Building Workplace Trust, edited by Barbara Brooks Kimmel. To purchase this insightful publication and learn more about Trust Across America, visit their website.

Peter DeMarco is the founder and president of Priority Thinking® and EthicsPoll™. He is an author, speaker, executive coach and ethics educator with 30+ years of experience in leadership development. For more information on Peter’s writing and speaking—including his forthcoming book—visit his website.