Designing for Trust

The research indicates that the best, most successful teams are built within a tapestry of trust, respect, and care. But as I noted in “Human Needs in Conversation,” it isn’t always easy to cultivate trust in an environment where there are often brief points of contact between co-workers and potentially long stretches of time without contact at all. Even the relationships we have with department members we sit near, or even eat lunch with, lack the depth of connection we usually have in our personal lives.

It makes it difficult for designers to design for conversations when team members are not familiar with each other or a negative relationship with trust has already been established. But overcoming this is essential; trust must be established early and quick, and continued to be cultivated throughout any project or task, starting with our most basic workplace conversations.

Below are a few things to consider when designing for the element of trust within effective conversational spaces.

“The data also suggest that team psychological safety is something beyond interpersonal trust; there was evidence of a coherent interpersonal climate within each group characterized by the absence or presence of a blend of trust, respect for each other’s competence, and caring about each other as people” (Edmondson 375).

Three Considerations of Designing Conversations to Establish Trust



We’ve all heard the phrase: shit rolls downhill. This is especially true in group settings, where a team leader’s hidden fears, control issues, or indifference can stifle any chance of achieving an authentic degree of trust. If this is a place that the innermost turmoil of the self can show up, then it becomes essential for a team leader to be someone who trusts themselves enough to know that they must trust their team. “If the facilitator does not believe in the group, this comes out in subtle ways… Any group knows when it is being trifled with or dishonoured. The people will never really trust that facilitator again” (The Institute of Cultural Affairs 35).

In the New York Times Magazine article, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” one team’s engineer recalls his group experience with fondness, telling the researchers how: “his team leader was ‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks’” (Duhigg). Not surprisingly, that particular team “was among Google’s accomplished groups” (Duhigg). The transparency, sincerity, and openness of a team lead will directly set the tone and support the direction of any group of co-workers—new to each other, or not.

But what can a designer do if the team leader is inexperienced or the choice is beyond their control? Design leadership must step in and play a role in establishing “the right” team leaders. Yet, this is easier said than done; instilling trust is a two-way street and everyone needs to participate.

In “Do You Really Trust Your Team? (And Do They Trust You?),” co-founder and managing partner of Paravis Partners Amy Jen Su acknowledges that understanding why trust is important is often the easy part. Rather, it’s the “what and how parts” that have often been left to “gut feelings… instead of a concrete choice” (Su). Su breaks the what and how down into two areas to consider in leadership and team building: “trust in performance,” which addresses measuring ‘hard’ execution-based factors needed to establish trust between teams and their leaders, and “trust in principles,” which addresses the ‘soft’ skills that impact “engagement and satisfaction” (Su). Organizations will need to think more holistically about building sustainable trust between teams and their leaders as the marketplace becomes less steady and there arises a higher urgency for adaptive problem solving.



“Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
-Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden

If you are attempting to establish trust in a team, it may require you to hit the brakes first. This can be counterintuitive in business settings where the motto is usually ‘time is money’. But allowing a team time and space to share appropriately, to take a satisfactory intermission—a pause—before “digging in” can aid in bringing high moments of empathy and quickly establish the seeds of trust. In Do / Pause, author Robert Poynton writes: “A pause is an opening. It acts as a portal to other options and choices, giving more dimension to your experience” (Poynton 17).

Much like the previous consideration, modeling the importance of “pausing” comes from leadership at the organizational level, but conversation designers are responsible for the day to day implementation. “As a designer of strategic conversations, it’s your job to help nurture the patience that’s required for the group to develop their insights before they start taking action” (Ertel and Soloman 54). Sometimes this pause may give individuals or small groups time to perform tasks related to reflection, or expression, as discussed in the prior post “Designing for Common Ground”; on the other hand, this pause could give time for shared experiences, or playful interaction. Regardless of the method, a slower pace carves out time for team members to experience vulnerability and align towards a common goal.

Shared experiences, even personal ones, are a compelling way individuals can connect, especially in situations where members are new to each other. “Shared experiences are a powerful tool for managers to build high-performing teams. They help to shape values, norms, and behaviors that allow people to get work done more efficiently and effectively” (Giacoman). Traditionally, organizations have viewed this as “time wasted” but more of today’s businesses are recognizing how, when used appropriately and effectively, these pauses can go a long way to establishing positive group dynamics and substantially increase long term productivity.

During conversation planning stages, designers can account for this need to pause. Depending on the challenge or task, the group, and the desired outcome, designers can anticipate what type of sharing may be conducive to building trust, as well as recognize when a ‘shared experience’ style might not fit, but rather a playful activity, such as improv (discussed later) would better match the groups dynamics.

Designers ‘in the trenches’ and design leadership must share an interest in carving out time for effective, purposeful pausing, as well as illustrating the positive impact it has on productivity or innovation. This responsibility is never more important than now, as workers and organizations are already keenly aware of how much time is lost to conversation, in the form of meetings, emails and phone calls (see previous post “Why design conversations?”).



“We didn’t handle the situation any differently than any other interview, and it served as a testament to our approach – listening, following up…, building rapport and trust bit by bit, until there was a great deal of openness and great information” (Portigal 23).

Oftentimes, organizations find themselves in a position where they would like to know more about their own strengths and weaknesses, blind spots, service hiccups, or employee satisfaction/experiences, etc. The desire to know more may start simply as expressed curiosity between two managers, or it may be a task force charged with providing greater clarity on a specific subject for strategy development. Regardless of the source, many organizations know there can be valuable knowledge extracted directly from within their ranks. But approaching busy employees and asking probing questions might not always be welcomed; it is essential to design these interviews in a way that is respectful, informative, and cultivates, rather than undermines, established trust paradigms.

In Mapping Experiences, Jim Kalbach writes: “This type of interview is an art. The challenge is balancing between a nondirected conversation and getting feedback on the specific topics you need to learn about. It’s the interviewer’s job to drive the conversation, letting go of control at times, and jumping in and steering the session at others” (Kalbach 118). It is best to avoid surveys in these situations; impersonal investigation may cause employees to feel like just a statistic. “The goal is to explore and learn, not to take a quantitative poll” (Kalbach 112). By being respectful and clear on time and expectations, and allowing the interviewee to feel relaxed, setting the tone as conversational, the organization can really dig deep and discover elements of their operations and employee experiences in ways a survey never could. But unless there is true, authentic trust, little knowledge will be gained.

Designers can have a significant impact here even if they are not the interviewer. In pre-interview stages, designers can shift focus back to individual experience, ensuring considerations are made in areas such as the location or the length of the interview, time of day or the tone of the questions. They may also provide support by identifying optimal individuals to interview within the organization and developing a well thought out discussion guide. Designers can harness their understanding of experience to ensure the interview feels like a great conversation, where there is great potential for deeper insights after developing genuine rapport. Post-interview, designers can support efforts to synthesize the data and identify themes as well as determine where great visuals are needed, such as personas and maps (discussed further in “Tools of the Trade“), which can be used for conversations down the line.


Exploring trust as an
essential ingredient

If you’ve ever conversed with me, you know I’m a huge Jeanne Liedka fan. I was introduced to her via her book Design for the Greater Good, loaned to me from a co-worker at AARP during my practicum. I couldn’t recommend it enough.

One reason I’m a fan of hers is because — though she is not a designer — she has spent years promoting design thinking methods in business. Designers need these advocates within other disciplines, whose education, experiences and goals may be different than our own, but nevertheless, can be great teammates who understand our processes toward innovation.

I encourage you to visit MURAL’s articleMaximizing the ROI of Design Thinking: Livestream Recapand watch Liedtka’s video! Factoring trust (as one component) of measuring design thinking’s ROI is a connection we don’t often consider in business.

“We live in a world where organizations, and individuals, ability to adapt and change quickly is absolutely critical. We do that best and most efficiently and effectively in an environment where we trust the people that we’re working with… The ability of design thinking conversations to create trust, both within teams and between teams, and their important stakeholders, is really critical” (Liedtka).