The Difference Between Trust And Psychological Safety
Trusting other people
When building psychological safety in a team, or in any group context, it’s necessary to foster and maintain trust. Trust and psychological safety are sometimes confused with each other, and whilst they are related, trust is simply a component of psychological safety.
Trust can be defined as the extent to which we hold expectations of others in the face of uncertainty about their motives, and yet are willing to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
Trust is indeed essential to building and maintaining psychological safety in a team: if you break another team member’s trust, it will certainly damage the psychological safety of the team.
The difference between psychological safety and trust
However, psychological safety doesn’t just comprise of high trust in a team. The primary difference between psychological safety and trust is that psychological safety consists of beliefs concerning the group norms – what it means to be a member of that group – whilst trust focusses on the beliefs that one person has about another.
Psychological safety is defined by how group members believe they are viewed by others in the group, whilst trust regards how one person views another.
This diagram from Science For Work explains it very well:
Trust is personal; psychological safety is a group phenomenon.
As it shows in the diagram above, when you possess psychological safety, you can feel secure in the knowledge that the other members of your team trust you – and through this trust, will support you and will not change the way they feel about you, even if you need help, make a mistake, or need to take a risk.
Trust is the converse. You may trust your team mates to possess the competence they need in order to do their job. You may trust them follow through on a commitment they made to you, or the rest of the team. And you trust them to act professionally, ethically, and honestly – and in turn, this builds the group level of psychological safety.
This trust in someone’s capability and consistency (meaning that they can and will complete the task they said they’d complete) is known as Cognitive Trust. The other side of trust is Affective Trust – trust in someone’s capacity for caring (i.e. empathy and sympathy) and their candour (i.e. honesty and integrity), which means they will do the right thing. Both cognitive and affective trust are essential in a strong, psychologically safe team.
Interdependence and clarity
In a group, trust is built through both higher degrees of interdependence, so that team mates rely on each other and work closely together, and through clarity of expectations and support. If team members know what is expected of them, what they can expect of their team mates, and that they can depend on their team mates for help, psychological safety on the team increases.
It’s clear to see how this interplay of trust, dependancy and clarity creates a group phenomenon of psychological safety.
It’s worth noting that different cultures value and build trust in different ways. Teams in India, China, Europe and the US may place more or less weight on cognitive trust than affective trust, or the other way around.
Remember that just as everyone on the planet is unique, as is every team.
Shane Snow explains in this chart how a lack of trust between people results in guarded relationships, and when there is a lack of trust between teams, it can result in toxic organisational politics.
So, remember that when you’re building psychological safety in your team, you must not only increase trust between team members, but also between teams, so that other people and teams in the organisation trust you and your team. And again, this means trust in not simply “doing” (cognitive trust), but “doing the right thing” (affective trust).
Trust versus Psychological Safety
As a really simple example, consider the climber and the person belaying them in the photo below. The person climbing is putting their life in the hands of the belayer: they implicitly and completely trust them to hold the rope if they should fall. However, they may still not feel psychologically safe enough to call down and say “I’m afraid, can you hold the rope for a minute?”, or admit that they’ve reached their limit and want to come down. That’s the core difference between trust and psychological safety.
Research by Schaubroeck et al has shown that servant leadership influences affective trust and fosters psychological safety, whilst transformational leadership influences cognitive trust, which improves team performance.
Foundations of psychological safety
Just as building deep trust takes time – indeed, if someone tells you to “Trust me“, it can actually reduce your trust in them – building psychological safety takes a long time too. And it’s not enough to say “This team is psychologically safe.” To build psychological safety, team members and leaders need to demonstrate to each other that they can be trusted, in all the myriad ways that trust manifests, both affectively and cognitively.
Through building trust, the foundations of psychological safety in a team are set. Read more here for ten key behaviours to create and maintain psychological safety.
Or download the entire psychological safety tool kit for exercises, workshops, surveys and tools.