Three Circles of Trust

If you’ve seen the movie Meet the Parents, you probably remember “the circle of trust.” Robert De Niro’s character, Jack, a former CIA agent and overly protective father, is obsessed with making sure his future son-in-law Greg is a trustworthy and honorable husband for Pam, his only daughter. From his point of view, a person is either in or out of his circle of trust; there’s nothing in between.

Effective leaders have learned to have multiple circles, each with varying degrees of trust, depending on the people, context of the relationship, and the circumstances involved. Consider these three circles of trust:

The outer most circle is the Community and is the group of individuals that you would consider your acquaintances. Perhaps you’ve met them a few times, may know their names, and occasionally interact with them such as the clerk you regularly see at the grocery store, your plumber, or the teachers at your child’s school. This circle is characterized by the lowest degree of trust which tends to be based on the norms of the context of your relationship. There tend to be  rules, policies, procedures, or contracts in place to prevent one party from taking advantage of the other. There isn’t anything wrong with this level of trust. It’s appropriate for the transactional nature of your relationships in this circle.

The Crowd circle contains those relationships that have a deeper level of trust characterized by personal knowledge of each party. A relationship moves from the Community circle into the Crowd by demonstration of trustworthy behavior over time to where the parties involved can reliably predict each other’s behavior. This is the circle where you would typically find relationships with your team members, co-workers, or social organization associates.

The innermost circle is the Core. This is the circle of trust reserved for the closest relationships in your life such as your spouse, family, and best friends. This level of trust is characterized by the parties knowing the hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities of each other. These relationships have the highest levels of trust because they also have the highest levels of vulnerability. Over the course of time these relationships have experienced increased amounts of personal disclosure and the parties have developed a history of respecting and protecting the vulnerabilities of each other.

Contrary to what’s portrayed in Meet the Parents, there isn’t just one circle of trust. Our relationships are too varied and complex to fit into a one-size-fits-all approach and successful leaders have learned to extend and cultivate the right amount of trust depending on the given circle of the relationship.

What are your thoughts? How would you categorize your circles of trust? Feel free to share your comments.

5 Comments on “Three Circles of Trust

  1. Randy,

    I like the circles, and I believe one of the essential points is that we need to be active in all three. Each may require a little different approach or amount of effort. Transparency in each circle is one attribute that would be required. How much we “reveal” may differ in each circle. It would be interesting to think about key attributes to develop trust in each circle and how either the attributes change or how the attributes are used changes.

    One of the key points, though, is that we cannot stay “comfortable” in just one circle.

    Good concept to think through… Thanks!

    • Hi Jon, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Transparency is definitely a common attribute in all three circles and each circle would have additional and unique attributes that define that level of trust. The more that leaders understand about those attributes, the more effective they can be in creating the appropriate boundaries and expectations for relationships within a given circle.

      Take care,


  2. Good stuff Randy. This is a good reminder that trust takes time. It’s hard in our “hurry up we want it now” society to slow down and make sure we are doing deals and working with those we can really trust. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this… 🙂 Eric

    • Thank you for your comments Eric. You are right! Our fast paced, instant gratification culture has a tendency to work against the development of deeply trusting relationships. There are some things in life that can’t be rushed and I think the development of trust is one of them.

      Take care,


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