Three Levels of Trust – What Level Are Your Relationships?

When it comes to trust, not all relationships are at the same level. Based on the context of the given relationship – professional, personal, family, social – each one can experience a different level of trust.

There are three basic levels of trust. The first level is deterence-based trust, or what I like to call “rules-based” trust. This is the most fundamental, base level of trust in all relationships. Deterence-based trust means that there are rules in place that prevent one person from taking advantage of, or harming another person. In society we have laws that govern our behavior in personal and business settings. When we engage in business we have contracts that ensure one party can trust another to hold up their end of the bargain. In organizations we have policies and procedures that provide boundaries for how we interact and treat each other, and if we violate those rules, usually there are consequences involved.

The second level of trust is knowledge-based trust. This level of trust means that I’ve had enough experience with you and knowledge of your behavior that I have a pretty good idea of how you will react and behave in relationship with me. We’ve had enough interactions over time where there has been a consistent display of trustworthy behavior that I believe I can trust you with the everyday type issues we experience together. This is the level of trust that most of our day-to-day professional relationships experience.

The third and most intimate level of trust we experience in relationships is called identity-based trust. This level of trust means that you know my hopes, dreams, goals, ambitions, fears, and doubts. I trust you at this level because over the course of time I have increased my level of transparency and vulnerability with you and you haven’t taken advantage of me. You’ve proven yourself to be loyal, understanding, and accepting.

Identity-based trust isn’t appropriate for every relationship. This level of trust is usually reserved for the most important people in our lives such as our spouse, children, family, and close friends. Yet with the proper boundaries in place, this level of trust can unlock higher levels of productivity, creativity, and performance in organizations. Imagine an organizational culture where we operated freely without concerns of being stabbed in the back by power-hungry colleagues looking to move higher on the corporate ladder. Imagine less gossiping, backbiting, or dirty politics being played because we knew each other’s hopes and dreams and worked to encourage their development rather than always having a me-first attitude.

Take a moment to examine the level of trust in your most important relationships. What level are you at with each one and how can you develop deeper levels of trust?

11 Comments on “Three Levels of Trust – What Level Are Your Relationships?


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  5. Thank you for this Randy. Martin Buber wrote about relationship and the 3 ways we relate to others: greater than, lesser than (both are I-It relationships), or equal to (I-Thou relationships). Google’s Project Aristotle (online) determined that the greatest predictor of consistently high level team performance is psychological safety. As you point out, most workplaces are not such safe places and therefore engagement, alignment and performance suffer. Most relationships at work tend to be I-It which makes for inequality and disengagement. Those relationships that are honest and safe are the ones on which we can build and enhance the experience of the workplace.

    • Thanks for your insightful comments. I wasn’t aware of Martin Buber’s work and I’m intrigued by the 3 kinds of relationships you mentioned.

      Take care,


  6. Why is it that the primary criterion in determining how much we can trust in people is based on a negative assumption, an assumption that people take advantage of each other? Yes, a lot of people do that…but also a lot of people do the opposite thing and give, and helps without expectation. When we can trust (identity-level trust) some people – not all, even at first, when we share our hopes and dreams and desires, they can surprise us…for the better.

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  8. As a business consultant, a business owner needs to also focus on community and consumer trust. A business owner / CEO that can master knowledge based and identity based trust in the marketplace are the most successful. Especially today May 2021. Many businesses miss this mark when building their brand. This is where they need to show their transparency and be vulnerable. It’s why a photo on a professional’s business card is more effective than a logo. It’s why community business involvement brings in more local consumers. Why people go to busainesses where they “know” everyone. Most importantly, They know you by name.
    Businesses that want to flourish post Covid need to up their trust impact.

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