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Jesse Lyn Stoner


The Five Levels of Trust

‘One of my goals with this article is to provide a language so we can talk about trust’

Published: Thursday, February 8, 2018 - 12:02

All relationships depend on a foundation of trust. There is a direct relationship between employee trust and performance. Customer trust is a key factor in decisions on purchases. And in our personal lives, friendships are built on trust and one of the biggest causes of destroyed marriage is lack of trust.

We seem to be born with a reservoir of basic trust that either increases or diminishes depending on our life experiences. Winning someone’s trust can be easier or more difficult depending on their reservoir. But once trust is earned, it should never be taken for granted. You can lose trust in an instant, and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to earn back.

What is trust?

As important as trust is, one of the problems is we are not always talking about the same thing when we talk about trust. Trust is a general, all-encompassing word that means many different things.

Huge misunderstandings can occur when we talk about “trust.” If you say you don’t trust someone, do you mean you don’t believe they are honest or do you mean you don’t believe you can depend on them to get the job done on time? If someone says they don’t trust you, what exactly don’t they trust?

There are different levels and intensity of trust. Honesty is a more basic level and has a stronger intensity than dependability.

Understanding the levels of trust and their intensity can help you build a strong foundation of trust and communicate more clearly when others violate your trust.

Level 1: Shared values

To build a foundation of trust, this is the place you must start.

Values are deeply held beliefs that certain broad modes of behavior (e.g., honest, kindness, or loyalty) or end-states (e.g. love, equality, or peace) are essential.

Trust occurs when people know they share the same values. The biggest cause of division occurs when people believe they do not. Wars are fought over these differences. Mergers and acquisitions fail because the values of the company cultures are incompatible. Without believing that you share the same values, the other aspects of trust do not matter.

Questions to consider:
• What are your top three to five values?
• What are you willing to take a stand for, even if it puts you at risk?
• How do you behave on a daily basis that demonstrates your values?
• How do you know what other people’s values are?

Level 2: Integrity

The next level up and of almost equal intensity to shared values is whether you live by the values you state. This level is about who you are—your character. Are you honest and ethical? Indeed, ethics are rarely clear cut and at some point we are all confronted with an ethical dilemma. But in general, we know right from wrong. And people who lie are not trusted—bottom line.

Questions to consider:
• Are you seen as a straight shooter?
• Can people count on you to tell them the truth?
• Are your actions consistent with your stated beliefs?
• Do you find yourself frequently making excuses for your behavior?

Level 3: Concern for others

People need to believe you are genuinely concerned for their well-being, not just your own personal gain. When we believe someone genuinely cares about us, we are willing to open our hearts and become vulnerable. Trust and vulnerability go hand in hand. We do not really trust until we take down the walls. The interesting thing about trust is that it goes both ways. The more you genuinely care about other’s well being, the more they care about yours. It doesn’t mean you need to be friends with everyone, but there needs to be a sense of personal connection. It is in this level that loyalty is forged.

Questions to consider:
• Do you see other people as individuals?
• Do you really care about their well-being?
• Do you look for ways to accomplish goals that are mutually beneficial?
• Are you willing to be vulnerable with others (open your own heart, take down your own walls?)

Level 4: Competent

People need to believe you know what you’re doing and are capable of doing it. If you agree to take on a responsibility, that you are capable of doing it. If you are driving a car, do you have a driver’s license? If you are in a leadership role, do you understand the role of leadership and are you capable of leading your team toward success? Competence doesn’t always mean that you yourself have all of the capabilities, but that you have the ability to pull a team together that does.

Questions to consider:
• What strengths and skills are required for what you want to do?
• Realistically, where are you strong and what skills do you need to further develop?
• How will you develop further? What do you need to learn? What experiences do you need? Who can support you?
• Do others see you as competent in the areas that are important to you? Are there things you need to do to demonstrate your competencies to others?

Level 5: Accountable

It doesn’t matter how competent you are if you can’t be relied on to follow through on your commitments. Can people depend on you? Are you reliable?

Questions to consider:
• Can you be counted on to follow through on your commitments?
• Can you be counted on to complete things on time?
• Do you show up when you are needed?
• Do you consistently provide what’s needed? Are you accountable for the quality of your work?

Identify which level of trust you are referring to in conversations

“What’s the matter. Don’t you trust me?” my teenage son asked when he wanted to go on a mountain climbing trip with a friend.

Yes, I trusted his integrity and his good intentions, but because of his lack of experience, I did not trust his competence, and specifically his judgment.

Answering a blanket “Yes, I trust you” or “No, I don’t trust you” is a set up for misunderstanding and creates a no-win situation, usually ending with a door slamming.

Instead of saying someone is trustworthy or is not trustworthy, it is much more helpful to be specific about what you trust and what you don’t. If trust is an issue, describe the level of trust that is the issue, and you’ll have a much more productive conversation.

First published Jan. 16, 2018, on Jesse Lyn Stoner’s Blog. © 2018 Jesse Stoner


About The Author

Jesse Lyn Stoner’s picture

Jesse Lyn Stoner

Jesse Lyn Stoner, founder of consultancy Seapoint Center, has worked with hundreds of leaders using collaborative processes to engage the entire workforce in creating their desired future. Stoner has authored several books including Full Steam Ahead! Unleash the Power of Vision (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2nd rev. ed. 2011), co-authored with Ken Blanchard. Stoner is recognized by the American Management Association as one of the Top Leaders to Watch in 2015 and by INC Magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Experts. Stoner has advanced degrees in psychology and family system, and a doctorate in organizational development.