The Impact of Trust

Trust ImageWhich is easier, to like someone you don’t trust or to trust someone you don’t like? This is not a mere parsing of words but rather drives at the heart of both personal relationships and organizational effectiveness. If an organization is floundering, leaders (and the governing boards they work for) will look for root causes. If things are going well, the motivation to analyze performance—especially something as abstract as trust—is not as intense and may not exist at all. Yet in both cases, flourishing or flailing, the key causative factors may relate directly to the presence or absence of trust and the need for it to be nourished or mended, which brings us back to the original question.

If I am convinced of someone’s integrity, which wells up from the individual’s most fundamental beliefs, values, and character, as it is shown in daily life and interactions, I am very likely to give that person my trust. This is not dependent upon any feelings of liking. There might be any number of traits or flaws that would prevent my becoming friends with a person but would not necessarily keep me from trusting him. What I would need to know is that the person was dependable (especially under pressure), that his word was as good as his bond, and that he subscribed to principles or reciprocal loyalty.

However, even if someone is extremely competent, smart, productive, affable, witty, etc., and even a small degree of trust is lacking, then the chances of  anything beyond the most casual friendship developing is, at best, remote. Simply put: I can trust a jerk (have done so) but I’m not going to trust you because you have a great personality and like the same books and movies I do.

Why is this important to the leadership of a school or non-profit organization? Three reasons come immediately to mind: first, a trusting organization is more likely to be an effective mission-centered organization; second, since relationships in organizational leadership cross personal as well as well professional boundaries, a sense of trust enables the leadership to look beyond personal differences for the greater good; and third, without trust, there can be no cohesion around a principle of high quality teamwork which will always be found at the heart of those organizations standing nearest the top of the mountain. Trust is the single best “immunity pill” against dysfunction within a leadership team. Dysfunction fears trust.

It’s a real irony, then, that trust is so seldom overtly discussed inside organizational structures (leadership teams, e.g.). It should be, because trust is not just an admirable abstract quality but rather an asset that needs to be nurtured. It is a vitally important component of human capital. Organizations and institutions that merely assume its presence or lament its lack in shoulder-shrug fashion do so at their peril.

So, when is the last time you discussed trust issues “inside the tent” of your leadership team meetings? (Don’t’ be discouraged if the answer is “never” or “seldom.”) Irrespective of what your answer is, here are some suggestions for building trust capital within your team.

  1. As a team, identify key qualities you associate with trustworthiness (e.g., character, authenticity, sincerity, competence, reliability, etc.) as they relate to discharging the mission of the organization. Don’t rush this exercise; take time to reach consensus on no more than five to seven qualities
  2. Create a graphic trust matrix (like the one at the top of this blog) to serve as a graphic reminder of the team’s commitment to trust and how trust indicators interrelate
  3. Applying these qualities (how you execute them and live them out within the organization), rate your own trustworthiness on either a numerical or alphabetical scale
  4. On the same scale, how is your trustworthiness perceived by other members of the team? (May or may not be applicable depending on the size of the team)
  5. Rate your assessment of the overall trustworthiness of the team
  6. Rate the willingness of the team to address issues of trust (a) as a team and (b) as they are exhibited by individual members of the team

Using these results, create an action plan for nurturing, sustaining, or improving levels of trust within the team and review it periodically at team meetings. (This is not a stand-alone measure but should be used as part of a comprehensive annual team self-evaluation.) I strongly advise using an outside facilitator in the initial phases of building a trust plan and tailoring it to the particular needs of your team.

Here it is in a nutshell, succinctly stated by Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: “When people don’t unload their opinions and feel like they’ve been listened to, they won’t get on board.” And without trust, nobody is getting on that train.

Note: Trust plans can also be used to good effect by governing boards (as part of a board annual self-evaluation and at board retreats) and by other departments/divisions within an organization.

Suggested sources for furthering your team’s appreciation of trust and teamwork:

  1. Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust
  2. Charles Feltman, The Thin Book of Trust
  3. Katherine Hawley, Trust: A Very Short Introduction
  4. Frances Fukuyama, Trust (this is a weightier tome, looking at policy and geo-political ramifications of trust, but containing much profitable material)
  5. Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
  6. Apollo 13 (a great film to watch together as a team and to discuss its myriad implications for trust and teamwork)



  1. Excellent and powerful. Lee, this is one of your best.

  2. Lee Cox is elegant as usual in dealing with the heart of leadership…the trust enjoyed by the leadership team. When this kind of relationship exists it is hard not to succeed in school operations and ventures.Lee has military experience, experience in the public sector and experience in the independent school world. His is a voice we should hear.

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