How to build and restore trust

Dr Wanda Wallace explores the complexities of trust: the best way to foster it, why it breaks down and how it can be rebuilt

If people are ultimately the only competitive advantage, then being the best competitor in the field is about having the best relationships. We are in a relationship-driven economy where every decision is heavily influenced by relationships – whom you trust and whom you don’t. The level of trust that is established with you as the leader, within the team and with clients is central to success.

In our personal lives, we often talk about trusting someone in a black or white way. In business, however, trust is rarely black or white; rather, it’s shades of grey that fluctuate depending upon the circumstances. What we need in business is a way to understand how to move trust up the scale and recognise when it is likely to slide down the scale. What can you do to increase trust? What conditions make a better environment for trust? What can you do to convince people to take your advice, follow your lead or be persuaded by you, either as an internal colleague or external client?

I’ve spent a lot of time on this issue in my coaching and consulting practice. I see that people make a decision to trust someone more or less. Your choice to trust me is driven by several factors, including:

Factors about you

1. How likely you are to trust anyone

2. How much you are dependent on me for success

Factors about me

3. How much trust I have shown to you

4. How credible or experienced I am, particularly in the areas in which you need to trust me

5. How reliable I am, or how much you judge that I will be reliable in this situation

6. How comfortable you feel with me as a person, which is driven by how much we have in common, how much we have shared and how I leave you feeling

7. My reputation and what people you know say about me

Factors about the situation

8. How political the environment seems

9. How self-protective people feel they need to be

I recently interviewed Charles Green, an international expert and author on trust-based relationships, on my radio show. He has boiled trustworthiness down to the following equation:

Trust = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-orientation

Credibility is defined as ‘do I believe what you tell me?’ It’s a combination of recognised expertise in the form of degrees, certification, track record and reputation.

Reliability is simply ‘do you do what you say you will do? This is sometimes described as integrity.

Intimacy means ‘do I feel safe and secure sharing things with you?’ When you sense that you can safely take a risk with me and open up to me and I reciprocate, intimacy increases. How can I show that it’s safe to open up to me? I can give you my full attention when you are speaking. I can take a risk with you and open up with you. I can find what we have in common. I can create an environment where you feel significant, competent and liked to some degree.

Self-orientation is the denominator, or the negative. Your trust of me will decline if I am being selfish and self-preoccupied. You won’t trust me if I appear to be constantly worried about how I am doing or what others think about me. Equally, at times when the environment becomes more self-interested, such as when there is a reorganisation, trust in general will decline. Green says that saying phrases such as ‘tell me more…’, and then listening to the response, makes you appear less self-oriented. He also describes the opposite of self-oriented as “the ability to not feel under attack, but to continue to be at the service of the person in front of you“.

Which of these four are the biggest drivers of trustworthiness? According to Green’s poll of 70,000 people, the most powerful factor in trustworthiness is intimacy.

Trusting as an action

The second half of trust is the act of trusting others. Here, trusting is a reciprocal activity. If you cannot trust other people, they will not trust you. For example, look at the symbolic gesture of offering your hand in a handshake. You make yourself vulnerable by extending your hand. The other person reciprocates. Trusting works in a similar way. I open up a bit with you, taking a small risk. You reciprocate and open up to me a bit. I respond with a slightly greater risk and so forth. Thus, we are trusting – or at least starting to trust in small degrees. 

“If you are expecting good or ill of people, that’s what you are going to get back. The reciprocating dynamic is hard to overstate,” says Green.

Rebuilding trust once it’s disrupted

One of the enduring myths about trust is that it takes a long time to create and a moment to destroy. “[That’s] actually not true,” says Green. “The only one in the trust equation that takes a long time to create is reliability because it requires the passage of time to create a track record.” Trust is not so much a function of time as it is a function of intensity. When trust breaks down, Green notes that we should ask how egregious the error was and how shallow was the trust. 

One of the biggest concerns in a relationship is how to rebuild trust when it’s broken. “Not only is that possible, it can actually strengthen relationships for trust to be restored… Trust rebuilt is stronger than trust prior to having lost it,” says Green.

In a self-protective mode, people often fail to take responsibility for the action that caused the breach and therefore trust disintegrates. Or people make excuses for their behaviour or attempt to justify it and explain why they did it. That doesn’t work. “You have to slightly over-compensate by showing what went wrong to get [trust] back,” says Green. “The most common mistake is people under-compensate. The only way to get trust back is to go overboard. Grovel. Wear the sackcloth and ashes. Say it’s really worse than it was. No justifying. No rationalising.”

According to relationship counsellor Mac Wallace, we humans view our own motives as noble, and look at the harm that was done to us in terms of impact. Therefore, to get past an injury, we have to discuss openly the impact of the action that caused the breach. We cannot think in terms of motives. So instead of saying ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’, you have to learn to say ‘let me understand how I hurt you’.


Mistrust is often about misunderstanding. And, of course, this is not a one-way street. We often project motives onto others because of our experiences and expectations. Hurt from the past gets caught up in the present.

Forgiveness is for us – not for the person we believe has committed an offence. Holding grudges is unhealthy for us and for our relationships. Sometimes, we hold on to resentments to protect ourselves, to punish others, and to hold on to the fantasy that we can make the past different. We cannot. It is what it is, and we have to come to terms with that.

Dr Wanda Wallace is an executive coach and trainer, and CEO and president of Leadership Forum Inc. She hosts Out of the Comfort Zone on VoiceAmerica Business Radio