3 Levels of Trust You Experience in Relationships

I regularly work with individuals and teams to help them build trust in the workplace. Many people think trust just sort of “happens” in relationships, but there are actually four elements of trust you can proactively cultivate to have healthy and thriving relationships.

Because I’m an advocate for building ever higher levels of trust, participants in my workshops often assume I think trust is a one-size-fits-all proposition, that all relationships should have the ultimate, highest level of trust. But 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. Because my experience with you has shown that you have my best interests in mind and will do what you say you’ll do, I feel safe enough to trust you in our everyday dealings. 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?

10 Comments on “3 Levels of Trust You Experience in Relationships

  1. I’ve collected answers to what makes and breaks trust for the past 20 years in more than 60 countries with multi national and local teams. I have condensed the answers into a 6 faceted model that includes honesty, competence, reliability, caring, integrity and openness. This concept of levels provides an elegant way of responding to people’s questions around levels of familiarity (relating to time and status) and emotional proximity to people. Thank you

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  3. The choice isn’t whether or not to trust. That’s impossible. We can choose to share risk with another person towards both arriving unharmed. Trust seems more of a result and not a choice.

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  6. Trust building off course needs time and more interaction . Cant be in one go .Still as a doctor i feel the first visit is very important for the patient and doctor to ..to start off building trust and empathy .

    • Hello Medha,

      As a doctor, your patients will often grant you a high level of trust by virtue of your competence and standing as a medical professional. Taking time to build empathy and personal connection will only male your relationships even stronger!

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.


  7. There has to be be a foundation of trust in a working relationship

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