Trust creating behaviours

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 24, 2008
Filed in Culture

I went to KM Australia this week and the issue of trust was mentioned many times. I noticed, however, that very few people went beyond generic statements like trust is essential for knowledge sharing, trust is the bandwidth of communication etc. I find these high-level statements unhelpful in practice and so I suggested to the conference participants that we come up with some specific trust creating behaviours and then use a dotmocracy to vote on what everyone thought was most important.

Here are the trust creating behaviours I suggested. I also invited others to suggest their own. There were two additions; the last two in this list.

  • Being open and honest about your intentions
  • Looking after your colleagues when times are tough
  • Consistently delivering good work
  • Team members are involved in decision-making
  • Being able to speak your mind in meetings
  • Being generous with what you know
  • Giving credit where credit is due
  • Making promises and keeping them
  • Being prepared to allow the group to come up with “your idea” rather than tell them how you believe it must be
  • Creating an environment where positive feedback always comes first and participation is encouraged

Here are the results. About 50 people participated in the vote.


‘Making promises and keeping them’ comes out on top followed by ‘Being open and honest about your intentions’ and ‘Giving credit where credit is due.’

There were only two votes cast on the new proposals, the last two listed above, which probably reflected an error in our process. They were added to the dotmocracy after most people had already voted.

What do you think are the essential behaviours for fostering trust? Remember, behaviours are something you can spot, not abstract concepts like dedication, being humble or caring for your colleagues.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. rob freeth says:

    Good list! I have always thought of trust as “making one’s resources vulnerable to another“. This implies a degree of risk-taking behaviour on the part of the trustor, and acceptance of responsibilty not to selfishly exploit the opportunity on the part of the trustee.
    I am more willing to trust someone if I believe they will use my resource for purposes aligned to my principles ad objectives. So the trust comes from shared values – which are often explored and exhibited by the sorts of behaviours you list. They are often developed over time – initially small risks which, if they prove safe, allow a bigger investment of trust.

  2. Great activity Shawn.
    Mayer, et al talk about the perception of trust having three components:
    1) Ability – you have to be capable to helping
    2) Benevolence – the intention of helping, and
    3) Integrity – a record of past promises kept
    Many on your list could probably be boiled down to one or more of these three..
    I like this model and have used it as a lens to help people understand their organisations trust issues, but the paper goes on to say that trust doesn’t matter as much in all cases. They posit that in strong cultural situations where uncertainty is low (such as a workers following a strict procedure) the level of trust does not effect cooperation. However where there is high risk or no situational norms (such as in collaborative environments and temporary or virtual teams) then trust becomes extremely important to working together and the three factors play a part in building a foundation for the collaboration.
    Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H. and Schoorman, F. D. 1995, An integrative model of organizational trust, Academy of Management Review, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 709-734.

  3. Ron Lubensky says:

    Shaun, while the list is fine, I am impressed with the activity and the effect it might have on succeeding events of the group. Perhaps after seeding only two or three factors to demonstrate the distinction between abstraction and practice, get the group to suggest the rest (in 10 words or less:-). I’d like to try this with citizens in a deliberative process, bringing trust to the surface and situated in context.

  4. I think as Ron pointed out the list is less useful that some sort of activity that helps people change their behaviour. I was looking at a newsletter the other day that listed 10 things of this and 10 things of that and felt lost in what exactly should I do.
    I like your categorisation Stuart (ie the Mayer et al categorisation) but it takes us away from the concrete and tangible. Great for academics but less useful if you want to change how people work.
    Rob’s observations accord with my own. How do we know which behaviours in a given context, such as in a community of practice, are vital ones that if we change these the entire system changes. I suspect part of the answer is in trial and error. This is something I’m doing with a client at the moment. It’s soooo against their culture where all the answers need to be known before you start. We are chipping away at it.

  5. Sharon Ryan says:

    Very interesting work. Have you looked at the Reina Trust work? Their groundbreaking work zeros in on the specific behaviours that increase and decrease trust. The Tough Trust model looks at I) Communication Trust ii) Competence Trust iii) Contractual Trust. It has been used with a range of organisations – includingthe US Army. Contact me if you are interested in learning more.

  6. Larry Irons says:

    I would add “Willingness to give something for nothing” to the list, which is different than merely being generous with what you know. The giving might be tangible or intangible, but the lubricant for trust is the absence of expectations for reciprocity.

  7. Nigel Paine says:

    Stephen M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust is well worth reading. He talks about personal credibility being at heart of all trust and this comprises: integrity; intent; capabilities and results.
    And the book describes 13 behaviours that engender trust:
    Talk straight; Demonstrate Respect;
    Create Transparency; Right Wrongs;
    Show Loyalty; Deliver Results;
    Get Better; Confront Reality;
    Clarify Expectations; Practice Accountability;
    Listen First; Keep Commitments;
    Extend Trust; Action Plan.
    It is a pretty good list as far as I am concerned.
    These apply to individuals and corporations.

  8. Janice Trantham says:

    I am going to incorporate your findings into a team activity to help a group get ready for a business process re-engineering. Thanks for he ideas.

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