It’s a pretty remarkable experience to stump an audience with a question about trust that doesn’t seem so hard to answer at first blush. The silence and puzzled stares I received after asking this question at a recent lunch and learn session were uncomfortable, for sure, but poignant if you consider how hard it was to draw out an answer.

The question is this: How do you define trust?

Take a moment and really think about how you would define it…

We know what it looks like when we have it (or don’t) in our personal and professional lives, but defining it eloquently is rather difficult. As the facilitator running the lunch and learn and a student of business team performance, I had a well-researched and succinct definition poised and ready to reveal on my next slide. In fact, my definition of trust was inspired by Patrick Lencioni and the concept of vulnerability-based trust from his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Lencioni leans on people’s willingness to be vulnerable with each other as a key indicator of trust. He formally defines trust as, “the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.” Essentially, if people are willing to be human with each other, trust can thrive.

But the audience didn’t say any of that. They didn’t talk about vulnerability or “being human” with each other. What came to the surface was less of a definition and more of an analogy.

People-Focused vs. Transactional Trust

One of the attendees equated trust to a line of credit. He said there’s only so much you get when you start out, and you have to pay it back in order to earn more. I was intrigued, but I know many business leaders who don’t “lend” trust until employees prove they’re worthy of it. This dichotomy seemed to discredit the analogy, and it certainly had nothing to do with vulnerability.

But then the old adage of “you get what you give” came to mind and I wondered how different business cultures function in environments where top leadership lends trust freely as opposed to those where employees earn the trust of executives by being top performers. One way is a more people-focused approach where trust is a gift given freely. The other is more transactional philosophy where trust is earned in exchange for performance.

Authentic Trust First

CEOs won’t argue that employees who reliably complete tasks and strive to be top performers are valuable. What’s worth knowing, however, is if those individuals are motivated by a culture that authentically trusts, empowers, and supports them. If they’re producing to avoid punishment or operating from a place of fear, the only thing they trust is that their results matter more than they do. That’s an awful place to be as an employee. It’s your job to set the culture of authentic trust as the CEO, and if you don’t do it right it will result in high turnover (not to mention high turnover costs) and poor public perception on sites like

This is why you must focus on building a culture of authentic trust before you invest in trendy cultural window dressings like weekly foosball tournaments and happy hours.

Vulnerability as an Initiative

A lot of companies boast cool workspaces, kitchy perks, and tons of amenities. Many times, though, these are used to cover up a pervasive culture of distrust and fearmongering at the executive level. They’re hoping that their “with it” vibe will keep the workforce bought in and engaged, but they’re wrong. If they were right, we wouldn’t have a global workforce that is a meager 15% engaged with their jobs according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report.

Disengagement isn’t about the kind of work people do or the fact that you don’t have an Xbox in the staff lounge.

The problems is that you don’t practice vulnerability and give trust freely at the very top of the organization and then allow it to flow down. It could also be that you simply don’t know how to be vulnerable to build authentic trust. That’s a whole topic of its own, but know that you and your team must become comfortable with being vulnerable if you want to cultivate a culture of authentic trust.

It can’t be purely transactional or one-sided, either, where you start at zero trust between you and an employee. It’s not right to treat it like a line of credit, either, because that analogy is inherently transactional, too. It has to start as a gift, given freely, by you. You must lead with vulnerability so the people in your care, on your payroll, feel like human beings instead of cogs in a machine. No amount of fun stuff or perks can make up for a lack of trust within your organization. Building a culture of trust by practicing vulnerability should be your primary culture-development initiative; not which food truck to order for your next fun day.  

What’s After Trust?

I’m guessing your definition of trust, if you took a moment to answer the question at the beginning of this article, doesn’t have the words “vulnerability” or “human” in it. If so, welcome to the same awkward position my audience was in. But now that you have a more informed way to view that really critical word, ask yourself if you’re building a culture of trust by leading with vulnerability. You may find that doing so makes some of the harder parts of your job a bit easier (like conflict).

If you ever feel like you want to talk about building trust in your team, reach out. We can talk about how to take the next healthy step in growing your company’s trust-driven culture.