In the early 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I found myself living in a post-communist country in Central Europe. This was when I first began to realise how important trust is for a healthy society and a vibrant economy. Communism had seriously eroded trust – not only among people but in leaders and institutions. People didn’t trust the police or judicial system. People didn’t trust the banks or businesses. In a time when it was possible to bribe your way through university, you prayed that you didn’t get sick and need an operation in case the doctor wasn’t competent.

Trust is like oxygen in the air we breathe. It is invisible, and most of the time we take it for granted and don’t think about it. But when it is missing, then the whole system dies.

Since that time, my whole life has been around trying to understand and teach trust. Here are a few of my key learnings:

  • Trust is more than one thing and it always needs a context: trusted for what? Trusted in which circumstances? The Six Facets of Trust of the HuTrust® model are a powerful tool for unpacking context and the various factors which make up trust.
  • One of the key things we look for when deciding whether to trust is congruence and consistency: Do the actions match words? Is the body language, tone, appearance, behaviour etc, congruent with the message being given? Is it consistent over time? Does it change depending on who is watching?
  • There is always a history which impacts trust. Sometimes that history is not acknowledged and sometimes it is somebody else’s history. But whether acknowledged or not, building trust means dealing with the past on some level – particularly when the past is traumatic.
  • You can’t build trust by demanding that other people should change. The only person you have the power to change is yourself. When a person feels pressured to change they often react by being defensive. A defensive person is not open to changing themselves.
  • Because of the negativity bias of the brain, we pay more attention to what is wrong than we do to things that are going well. This can lead to defensiveness. The antidote to this negativity bias is the conscious practice of gratitude.
  • There is a link between trusting others and trusting oneself.
  • Trust always involves some degree of vulnerability. The more willing a person is to be vulnerable, the more likely they are to build trust.
  • Feelings of shame are endemic in most cultures, particularly the deep toxic shame that many internalise as children which tells us that we are not enough, not good enough, not beautiful enough, not smart enough etc. This shame always acts as a brake on trust because it leads people to hide their mistakes and avoid vulnerability.

At first sight ‘Trust’ appears simple. And at one level it is. We don’t have to think too hard about whether we trust someone because millions of years of evolution have given us an incredibly powerful apparatus to evaluate whether people are trustworthy or not: – our ‘gut feeling’. In the past our survival depended on getting this right.

The gut feeling is not easily fooled! This is why I have come to think of Trust as a metaskill rather than simply a skill. It is not sufficient to learn the skills of communication, body language etc so that you can behave in a way that builds trust. At a deeper level you have to actually embody trust. Getting there is a deeply personal journey, and whereas skills can be taught in traditional workshops or training environments, metaskills are best absorbed through a mentoring/coaching process. See my Trusted Leaders Coaching program for more information.


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