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Trust in Projects

I would like to invite you to partake in an experiment.

The next time you are entering a room full of people, take a moment to rate your trust on a scale from 1 to 10. Do not overthink it, and try to memorize the number that came to your head. Later, after the meeting, the job interview or the after-work pint take another second to reflect on your evaluation. How do you recognize your individual amount of trust in a situation or person? And what effects does this amount of trust have on your actions? Lastly, what is “trust” anyway?

Trust: A Working Definition

Trust is a subjective quality assigned to a situation. Trust is deeply connected to one’s individual sense of security in a given moment. Let us look at two examples:

I’m picking my daughter up after a party. It is late and it is dark. I’m waiting in my car at the roadside in a desolate area of Berlin unbeknownst to me. I recognize two people walking towards me, dressed in black, with a big dog in tow. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable.

I am not an anxious person. I have a healthy amount of self-confidence and I know Berlin, albeit not this particular area. But still, I am happy when my daughter finally arrives and we can head home. Conclusion: On a scale from 1 to 10 I rate this situation with a 5.

After dinner, I place the dishes in the dishwasher and do a bit of housework. I sit down with my wife; we drink some wine and watch a little bit of TV.

A perfect 10. I am very familiar with this scenario which is completely devoid of risks. I am feeling secure.

10 out of 10 on a scale of trust

10 out of 10 on a scale of trust

I am sure you will quickly find examples of your own. Interestingly, our understanding of what trust actually is differs from person to person as well as from situation to situation.

The factors that play a role in a job interview, in a stadium or at a first date are completely different. If we raise or own awareness for what trust means in a specific situation we can actively shape it, make better decisions and act more effectively. Isn’t that what we want for our projects too?

The Effect of Trust

Trust facilitates learning and communication processes, both of which are essential for project success and high productivity. Let us take a look at two blatant examples.

Two weeks before the newly erected and infamous airport BER in Berlin was to be brought into service in June 2012, its opening was postponed again. The consequences included expenses of catastrophic proportions for many people and organizations, e.g. for shop tenants having to pay the rent for defunct businesses and obsolete goods. To this day no final opening date has been announced.

If we were to ask the staff at the construction site about their trust in the project the number would probably be rather low. I am sure many of them knew that the airport would under no circumstances be ready for operation in June 2012. But they didn’t tell that to anybody, or they didn’t tell it to enough people. I am sure one reason for this was a lack of trust.

A few years ago I was involved in the selection process for a new CRM system for an international company with thousands of users. Three companies competed against each other; two well-known and international software companies and one local, medium-sized manufacturer.

Three months of development made clear that two developers at 10 hours per week with the small-supplier option are faster than five or ten full-time developers with the big name solutions. The enterprise picked the local, small supplier. Trust.

I am sure you know projects in which trust had an immediate effect on your behavior and that of your colleagues. The following excerpt is taken from the book Joy, Inc¹:

“In 2009, I presented to about four hundred attendees at a Project Management Institute Global Congress in Orlando, Florida. […]
I asked the audience to raise their hands if the Project Management Institute certified them as Project Management Professionals. Four hundred hands went into the air. I asked them to raise their hands again if they had signed an oath of ethical standards to receive their certification. Again, all four hundred raised their hand.

Next, I instructed them to close their eyes. […] I then asked them to raise their hands if they had ever been forced to fake actuals for a project they managed, in violation of their signed personal oath. All four hundred hands were slowly raised. Wow. Clearly, fear manufactured by authority figures produces unethical behavior even in the most honest people.

We all know such situations. But we also know situations in which we have the heart to speak the truth. If we do, communication is more clear, quicker and goal-oriented. We have the opportunity to act instead of react. We can get involved actively, make better decisions about these ideas and realize the full potential of our teams.

Trust really seems to be helpful. Each one of us can develop his or her own awareness for what helps to increase trust. And then what happens?

Increasing Trust

My experience is that raising awareness for an issue already effects change. As long as we are not aware of the subjective amount of trust we just act accordingly, mechanically. But raising awareness already is the first step; reflecting on it collectively alters the level of trust.

Here’s a little experiment: Ask everyone in your team to rate the trust in the team and write down the number on a sheet of paper, and then collect the sheets. It’s even easier if you include a little indirection, “Write down how you think the others in this room rate the trust here”.

Reflecting on their decision-making process will help to address the truth. “I am not being completely honest here because I fear that…” is much more difficult to say out loud than “I think that many people are afraid of…”

A good way to introduce this topic in a meeting is to say something like, “I have read that trust is essential for project success. What can we do to (further) increase trust in our team?” Be creative when getting the ball rolling; new possibilities will arise from it.

Mapping Trust

Once you have set out to dig deeper, the following exercise has proved quite helpful: Create a canvas, for example on a whiteboard, with approximately a dozen areas of the same size. Collect factors that have an impact on trust; general concepts such as security, experience, reliability as well as more specific ones such as production errors, sick days etc.

Attach the canvas to the wall and ask the group to bring order to the results by grouping them. This way you create a common understanding and a common model. A good basis to continue your trust work. Here is an example:

Trust cards

Trust cards

Trust Workshop

If you are interested in learning more about trust why not come to one of our Trust Workshops? We look forward to your participation, your curiosity and your trust.


Best regards
Olaf Lewitz



[1] More information on Joy, Inc. and its author Richard Sheridan at
[2] In collaboration with Christine Neidhardt, Olaf Lewitz hosts “Temenos”, an experience-oriented workshop for people interested in personal growth and authentic relationships to other people. Find more information here.
[3] “Make Sense of Trust” at


Olaf Lewitz focuses on organic growth and cultural change in companies. As a Trust Artist he encourages people and organizations to have faith in their potential and possibilities. He assists if agile won’t work and a business wants to tackle a job with determination.

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