Trust in the Board Room

trust 2

Trust is a powerful construct.  It is essential for teams to succeed due to the interdependency required to accomplish shared goals (Franz, 2012).  Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman (1995) define trust as “being vulnerable to the actions of another team member as well as expecting another team member will perform as expected” (as cited in Franz, 2012, p. 125).  This definition implies that “trust also involves a willingness to be exposed to and take risks with the individual… [and] an expectation that the individual who is being trusted is more predictable and/or dependable” (Norman, Avolio, & Luthans, 2010, p. 351).

A construct of process, trust results in a something that we feel and can measure, and its on the decline according to Onora O’Neill, a philosopher who focuses on international justice and the roles of trust and accountability in public life.  Collectively, the outcomes of a trusting team impact the success of the team, the organization, and their stakeholders.     

In the context of a nonprofit board room, trust becomes central to the organization’s success of mission advancement and relationships with donors, staff, stakeholders, clients, and prospective partners.  BoardSource (2010) articulates, “Governance is a group action. Individual board members do not govern the organization. Rather, meeting as a group confers governing status to the board as a whole” (p. 15).  It is with this charge that board members discover, frame, and attempt to solve problems.  Trust in nonprofit leaders to engage in effective, ethical governance has become a turbulent topic, as fraud, embezzlement, and other unethical actions by board members, executive directors, and organizational leaders have become commonplace in scholarly and popular press publications.

BoardSource (2010) reinforces the importance of trust as a construct necessary for effective governance noting,

Any collaborative effort relies on trust among team members, and building this trust is critical to the team’s ultimate success.  Board members must be able to rely on each other — as team members — openly and without reservation.  The chair, individual board members, and the board as a body must develop a trusting relationship with each other and with the chief executive to consolidate mutual efforts and objectives. In short, when trust is present, everyone is driven by a common goal and shares information openly, accepting positive interdependence. (p. 318)

Creating a culture of trust poses a challenge for board chairs, executive directors, and members, as board dynamics are impacted by loyalty, power, and individual member diversity (BoardSource, 2010).  As a result of a trusting culture, “board members feel free to debate, question, openly examine, and even argue with each other’s points of view… Respect for each other’s contributions is the true foundation for professional reliance and interdependence” (p. 318).

board roomAs an executive director, I experienced the challenge of developing trust among board members.  My strategy, although novice and unproven, was to develop a level of trust with each member that served as a common catalyst for trust and engagement between board members.  The dyadic trust we held became a shared trust across the board, serving as a foundation for decision making, relationship building and organizational advancement.

Gibbs (1961) suggest, “trust in interpersonal dealings affects [one’s] degree of defensiveness, and defensiveness can lead to  [a] decreases in problem solving effectiveness” (as cited in Kilmoski & Karol, 1976, p. 630).  In the absence of trust, the authors posit, “only those ideas that are socially acceptable will be voiced in the group… this reluctance to be candid, is antithetical to what is required to produce a maximum of fluency of ideas [when problem solving]” (Kilmoski & Karol, 1976, p. 630). 

The implications of a lack of trust for nonprofit organizations are compelling.  The development, maintenance, and promotion of trust is essential to the success of most mission-driven organizations.  Klimoski and Karol (1976) offer compelling support for the engagement of trust as a moderator of decision making – a critical function of nonprofit boards.

While there is adequate research to suggest that a lack of trust may negatively impact personal commitment and identity with the group, turnover of team members, successful accomplishment of team goals, and decreased interdependency (Franz, 2012), trust is largely gained and lost based on our individual and group norms and rules.  So then, if trust is on the decline, yet serves a critical role in governance, among other aspects team dynamics, how can we build – or in some cases rebuild – trust?

In her 2013 TED Talk, O’Neill suggests that in the process of rebuilding trust, we need to ask three questions:

Are they competent?

Are they honest?

Are they reliable?


What we don’t understand about trust


Three simple questions to address a complex, process-based construct.  Is it possible that the foundation for rebuilding trust rests on these three questions?

A call to action:  What questions promote the rebuilding of trust for you, and how can they be applied broadly, across sectors, activities, teams, and organizations in order to create spaces for individuals to embrace ambiguity and vulnerability in new ways?

Trust:  the paradox of simplicity and complexity that leads to security in the face of vulnerability.


BoardSource. (2010). The handbook of nonprofit governance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Franz, T. M. (2012). Group dynamics and team interventions: understanding and improving team performance. John Wiley & Sons.

Klimoski, R. J., & Karol, B. L. (1976). The impact of trust on creative problem solving groups. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61(5), 630-633.

Norman, S. M., Avolio, B. J., & Luthans, F. (2010). The impact of positivity and transparency on trust in leaders and their perceived effectiveness. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(3), 350-364.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s