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.
Randy Conley, Vice President of Professional Services and Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies, is the author of the Leading with Trust blog. His LeaderChat posts appear the fourth or last Thursday of every month. You can follow Randy on Twitter @RandyConley or connect with him on Linked-In.