3 Simple Ways To Build Trust In A Zero-Trust World

How far do you trust your president or prime minister to keep a promise?

When you hear about the latest scandal in a charitable organization, how does it affect your faith in that institution?

Do you trust the tech leaders (Google, FB, Amazon) with your data?

I don’t. Nevertheless, I use their services on the daily (topic for another day).

So who can we trust nowadays?

According to Rachel Botsman’s Who Can You Trust?, the answer is each other.

This is not a new development…

Back in 2001 the PR firm Edelman surveyed 1,300 people from five countries about their trust in business, government, the media and other institutions. The results showed a steep decline in all, even NGOs. Further surveys have repeatedly confirmed it.

In January 2017, The Edelman Trust Barometer released its bleakest results so far – this time from 33,000 people across 28 countries. Not surprisingly, the government was the least trusted institution in many countries, with CEO’s not far behind. Undoubtedly, the 2008 global financial crises played a big role here, in addition to globalization and new technology. The Covid pandemic couldn’t have helped.

Ms. Botsman recognizes the “erosion of confidence in the systems” as a bigger trend – beyond a growing distrust of the banks or political leaders. She even believes that we now view our Facebook friends twice as credible as our government leaders.

If you’re skeptical of statistics like me, I invite you to survey your friends and colleagues. And by all means, put more weight on these results than on theirs’.

Whatever your personal feelings, one thing is clear – the 21st century has seen a rapid erosion of trust in the established institutions – from the church to the state and everywhere in between.

Some of the reasons for this erosion are logical, others not so. Some of the implications can already be seen, others not yet.

While researching “the sharing economy” for her last book, Ms. Botsman noticed that “technology was allowing us to trust strangers in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways.”  

If you consider that people now allow strangers to stay in their homes (Airbnb), jump in unmarked cars for cheaper rides (Uber) and trust the opinions of Yelp and other non-official watch dogs, you see her point.

She believes that we have entered a third age of trust. According to this hypothesis, the first age was a time when we lived in small communities and everyone knew everyone else. The second saw a shift from known people to known institutions (bank, church, etc.). In the third and current age, trust is distributed among peers – no longer flowing upwards to figures and institutions of authority but placed with our peers at Airbnb, Uber, Yelp and other reliable sources.

Trust Is An Energy

The Sex Pistols taught us that “anger is an energy”. Without the vitriol, Ms. Botsman equates trust to energy – “you can’t destroy it, it just starts to change Image result for the sex pistolsform”.  

Keeping in mind the shift from institutions to strangers (Airbnb, Uber, Yelp), consider these 2 non-obvious examples from Distributed Trust:

1. The Panama Papers –

If you consider that journalists have a long tradition of withholding information and trying to be the first to “get the scoop”, it’s amazing that a) they agreed to share information on the case of the Panama Papers, and b) to publish on the same day.

Not only did this represent a new way of working. It signified a new way of trusting. 

2. The Underworld –

Botsman’s second example looks at the world of drug dealers. She notes – “an apparently untrustworthy collection of individuals has managed to create highly efficient markets, i.e. create trust in a zero-trust environment”. Dealers are more honest on-line because technology allows and forces them to build trust in the same way that Airbnb or Amazon do.

Think about it for a second – 

What happens when vendors are rated by their buyers for their quality and speed of service, and sometimes vice versa? 

Forcing people to be accountable has created new forms of trust and disrupted old ones.

Can Trust Be Outsourced?

So what are the risks and negative consequences – both real and potential?

You could argue that the inauthentic nature of “forced trust” isn’t real, or at least not sustainable. As soon as people figure out how to trick others, they’ll do it. Maybe. However, I would argue that it’s better than the alternative – easy tricking without forced accountability (life pre-internet).

One real risk is outsourcing decision-making. I’ve never used Siri or Alexa, but I hear they’re fairly reliable. If it’s not happening already, it’s just a matter of time before people start asking them and their AI ilk for help with bigger, more important decisions.  

It’s one thing for AI to help you crunch numbers or play the odds. Trying to bypass your intuition and common sense is something else entirely. Count me out.

For better or worse, the age of “distributed trust” is upon us. If I hear the message that something is good, I’m more likely to trust the first-hand experience of my colleague than a leader in my organization – even a trustworthy one.

How To Build In Zero-Trust Environment

In this age when trust in traditional authority figures and institutions is at an all-time low, here are 3 simple (& actionable) ways to build it:

  1. Embrace the Sharing Economy

To embrace the complex modern workplace, teams and organizations have to move away from working in silos to collaborating across functions and disciplines. Taking the Panama Papers as an example, think outside of your box for a second…

What specifically could you do with peers from your team/organization/industry? 

What would such an initiative look like in your world?

Whatever idea you come up with, make sure it involves sharing information, not hoarding it.

  1. Leverage Collective Problem-Solving

Use the wisdom and intelligence of a small group of peers that has the same or similar problems. There’s no better human resource than someone who shares or understands your problem.

Here’s how Peer Consulting works:

  • Small circle of peers comes together (w/o external experts).
  • Frank presents problem in circle.
  • Others share how they would deal with problem.
  • Frank takes action and shares results at following meeting.
  • Discuss results and adapt strategy, if needed.

There are various ways to do Peer Consulting – the most important thing is to leverage the intelligence of each other, not external experts.

You might be surprised by how much you can learn in the observer role, not just the presenter (Frank) role.

Depending on available time, you should repeat the 5 steps so that everyone has a chance to present a problem and develop a strategy/solution with help of peer input.

  1. Lead with Transparency

Have you ever heard a leader say that s/he didn’t communicate information because it was too early or incomplete?

Most people would prefer to hear something as opposed to nothing. Even if just the above message.

Bottom line: Withholding information is never a good idea.

Image result for jfk files

Sources like Google and Wikileaks ensure that the truth emerges. We no longer need to wait 60+ years before the FBI releases “the files”.

With video-equipped phones and YouTube at our fingertips, no secret is safe. So don’t keep one.  

This accountability might be “forced”, but thank God for that!

You can’t always share the details of every change or decision. But you can always share about the process and timeline – if the timeline changes, share that!

If you make a statement and something changes, share it. People don’t forget earlier statements. If you assume that they’ll forget something you said or promised, you’ll regret it.

Without a doubt, AI can do some incredible things. Nevertheless, I like the fact that all 3 of these are human-driven. No AI required.


Here are a few safe assumptions about your situation in the modern-day complex workplace:

  • You’re more likely to lead or collaborate with a diverse team that’s globally dispersed than a heterogeneous one that sits together.
  • You’re more likely to work in an organizational matrix across cultures and functions than working directly under one boss who sits under his or hers.
  • You’re more likely to trust the recommendation of a peer or colleague than a boss or organizational leader you don’t know.

Whatever your specific situation, I think you’d agree that work situations are more complex than ever before. Information is more readily shared and easier to access. Trust is more distributed, as a result.

Therefore, my best advice is to share and collaborate with others whenever you can, leverage the wisdom of your peers and be transparent in everything you do.

For communication tips for building trust during a change, here are:

If you implement and practice these tips with your team/s, you’re on your way to building trust in a world of mistrust.

What tip or idea can you share for building trust in this environment?

  • Intetesting article – thanks for giving me a new perspective! I am really pleased to have found this website.

  • Some great tips there Tim. Theres nothing like timely,truthful communication at all levels, whether this is amongst a small group of peers or across vast multinational corporations. In our justifiably cynical world, no amount of spin or obfuscation will go unrevealed for long.

  • Thought provoking Tim! I believe authenticity and transparency (from your “SMART” acronym) are key in building trust. They are the most personally challenging, yet most fulfilling and rewarding. In my health coaching business it’s what I want from clients in regards to what they need and how they’re doing and produces the most growth and change. Authenticity and transparency is also what I need to give to my clients in order to build trust and offer the highest value.

    In this new “sharing economy” I rely on people trusting the recommendation of friends, colleagues and even strangers to build my business.

    • Thanks, Tiff! I’m curious, what helps you to be authentic with your clients? Especially when you can clearly see they are not being authentic with you…