The word gets thrown around in every part of life – personal, work, sport, politics. We all have that person (or people) in our life that we just trust. We trust them with secrets. We trust them with our kids. We trust them with out true selves.

Over the past 30 years I’ve been lucky enough to work with teams at all levels in organisations on how important trust is within a team and among individuals. It is usually the single thing that undermines performance in a team. And having worked with senior executive teams, and sporting teams, the issue is always the same “we don’t trust each other”.

And trust, or the lack of it, impacts every part of how teams work well. You can’t have healthy conflict without trust. You can’t have clear accountabilities without trust. You can’t give or receive honest and constructive feedback without trust. It underpins everything, and in the words of a good friend, it’s the thing that will stop a good team from being a “fucking awesome team”!

There’s an equation!

One thing that has become clear is that you need a way to talk about it. There is lot’s of research on what trust means, and what its component parts are. And as with most things that I deal with I like simplicity. So there’s an equation that has served me well over my career. And while it may not stack up to the rigours of a peer review, it certainly helps as a basis for a discussion about trust.

Trust is a product of capability and intimacy. And is inversely proportional to risk.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

Capability – how good are you (or do I think you are) at the thing that I am expecting you to do – your job, your performance on the field, driving my car.

Intimacy Quite simply how well do I know you

Risk – What’s at stake

An example always helps – I ask you to look after my pencil.

Lets assume I know you reasonably well. For the sake of the example let’s give it a number. I know you 7/10. I don’t know everything about you. But I know you well enough. You’re definitely not a stranger and probably more than an acquaintance.

And I know you are able to look after things. You are diligent. You pay attention to what’s going on around you. You’re careful with your own things and so I think you’d be pretty careful with mine. So you’re pretty capable.

And what about the risk? Well it’s just a pencil. I can replace it. As a result I trust you enough to look after my pencil.

Now if all that stays the same but I’m asking you to look after my fountain pen that my father left me. I know you the same. You’re capable of looking after writing instruments. The fountain pen means way more to me than the pencil. The risk is much higher. If I lose the fountain pen I will be devastated.

Risk goes up. Trust goes down.

How do you improve it?

Which of the three things do you work on to improve trust. No surprises it’s all three. Risk is hard because the risk is what the risk is in a particular situation. I can put some things around you to make it less risky. For example, keep you in sight while you’re looking after my fountain pen. But many of these defeat the purpose. I need to trust you to do the thing you are expected to do.

Capability can definitely be improved. Training. Practice with less meaningful tasks to get experience. But takes time and patience. And you still might not get it.

But intimacy is a standout. Some of you will hate this example but it’s the reason sports teams have end of season trips. And why the spend so much time together. It’s often the cornerstone of some team building programs that invariably end up with individuals sharing dreams, fears, and concerns. Not things about process or revenue. Personal things. Intimate things.

The better you know someone the greater the trust you will have. The more trust you have the better conversations you will have. The better conversations you have the better outcomes you will get. It’s always time well spent.

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