Three Levels of Trust – Where Do Your Relationships Stand?

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?

Randy Conley is the Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies and his LeaderChat posts appear the last Thursday of every month. For more insights on trust and leadership, visit Randy at his Leading with Trust blog or follow him on Twitter @RandyConley.

22 thoughts on “Three Levels of Trust – Where Do Your Relationships Stand?

  1. Pingback: Three Levels of Trust – Where Do Your Relationships Stand? « kingsiju

  2. Trust is the one factor that increases your ability to be effective in organizations and in families you’re your faced with resistance in either arena it might be time to consider what level of trust you have established and then look at the behaviors your demonstrating to those individuals and consider why you are at that level of trust. Thanks for the great insight Randy.

    • Thanks for your comments Beth! Trust is the foundation of any healthy, successful relationship and it’s important to understand the nature (or level) of trust within your given relationships.

      Take care,


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  4. Hi Randy,

    First let me say that I really enjoy your articles because they are thought provoking and this one is another winner.

    I had never thought about Trust Levels in this much detail; it is probably just the tip of a very complex iceberg. I get the first level but I think the second and third have a less clear divide. I would think that, at some point, one merges with the other. Otherwise, the relationship can’t grow and can even regress. If it breaks down then we loop back to the first level of trust, if not to a mutual mistrust and dislike [even explosive, like matter and anti-matter don’t like each other].

    I’m wondering if trust ends with the third level. I have a problem placing Blind Faith [not only religious] and if perhaps it would become the highest and purest level of trust. I’m thinking of particular professions like military, fire fighters and rescuers in general. The people doing these jobs put there lives in jeopardy daily and depend on one another for survival. If I were a fireman I would want to have blind faith in my colleagues and that kind of relationship goes beyond a deep understanding of each other. In fact, in a warfare scenario I probably won’t even know the name of who my saviour is/will be. This is the level of trust that I find difficult to justify or explain because all the building blocks of a relationship aren’t in place. Perhaps the deterrence trust level applies in these cases; where the conviction is in the system/organization and faith in an ironclad recruiting system and hierarchical management structure. If that’s the case then we have a circular model where trust levels fuse into each other and come full circle.

    Sorry if I have added confusion to the trust model but you see what I mean, your post got me thinking again, maybe too much.


    • Hello Enzo! Thanks for your comments and I can see where you are coming from.

      Similar to what I said in my reply to Steve, I think it’s important to clarify what is meant by “blind” trust/faith. In the examples you mentioned, I don’t consider that to be blind faith. Firemen or soldiers place their “complete” trust in each other because they each have the competence and shared experiences with each other to have earned that level of trust. Their trust is based on reason and choice, not based on a hopeful wish.

      You are right that there is a gradual transition between knowledge-based trust and identity-based trust. It happens over a period of time through shared experiences where each party has proven they are trustworthy to each other. I was trying to convey in my article that there are some relationships where deterence-based trust is appropriate (e.g., a vendor you hire to perform work for you) and that’s where you’d want to keep it. But in other relationships you want to “grow” the level of trust to maximize the potential of the relationship for both parties.

      As always, thanks for your brilliant insights!


      • Ok, this is good. I see the trust model more clearly now and the fact that there is no need for the Blind Faith complication. We’ll leave that for religion…not going there. In the end, the three models are sufficient to cover 99% of the situations I can think of. I’ll leave 1% of doubt in case there were something I’ve missed.

        Btw, I appreciate the compliment but rather than brilliant insight I like to call it contorted confusion and my mission to try and make sense of it all. Sometimes the answers are “in plain sight” as they say…need to open my eyes more. 😉

        Thanks again,

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  9. Thanks for sharing a great article, one level of trust is missing in my opinion an to me it’s part of “Identity Based Trust” and that is Blind Trust. This level of trust is dangerous because when people make a mistake (and they will) and you perceive it to be against you it seems to destroy a relationship to its core. You steal need to understand if the choice/mistake was malicious in its intent.

    Having trust is great but we need to know what breaks our trust. If my boss makes a decision at work that works for the company but ultimately hurts me it should not break my trust! However in many cases I see this happen because people do not define what will break their trust from the beginning.

    With Respect

    Steve Archambault

    • Hi Steve. I appreciate you bringing up the topic of “blind trust.” To me, “blind” trust is placing trust in someone or something without giving it any conscious or rational thought, which is most cases, is not a good thing to do. I think it’s important to think rationally about whether or not to place your trust in someone/something.

      On the other hand, you can have “complete” trust in someone/something because you have such a deep level of experience with that person and you have made a conscious choice to place 100% trust in them KNOWING THE RISKS involved (that there is the chance they will break that trust). So in essence, blind trust is trusting without thought, complete trust is trusting with intentionality.

      Take care,


  10. Pingback: Trusting « My Soul Leapt

  11. Randy,

    These three levels of trust are extremely important to understand in our workplace, community, and home. The identity-based trust, in particular, is an interesting one. As you point out, this one is one shared with our inner circle of people who help guide us and empower our dreams. It seems, in general, identify-based trust would be mutual.

    Great insights on trust…. thank you!


    • Hi Jon. Thanks for your comments.

      I agree that identity-based trust is a mutual condition between people and as you mention, is usually reserved to our inner circle.

      Take care,


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  13. Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to your blog before but after looking at many of the posts I realized it’s new to me.

    Regardless, I’m definitely delighted I discovered it and I’ll be bookmarking it and
    checking back frequently!

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  15. I would agree that trusting relationships are the missing elements that hender many organizations from achieving and maximizing there potential. I am interested in learning how to improve trusting relationships in a corporate workplace.

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