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Trust in Groups


Explanations > Trust > Trust in Groups

In-group conditions | Boundary conditions | Induction |Boundary threat | So what?


What makes a group a group: Is it the similarities between the people in the group? Or is it their differences with people outside of the group? The answer is yes to both, but in practice the second question is often more significant than the first.

In-group conditions

When a group forms, they will typically go through the formative ‘Form, Storm, Norm, Perform’ sequence, where they will typically divide their work up into trusted roles which they are individually best suited, such that they can together meet the larger group needs. Just as individuals have beliefs, values, mental models and goals, so also will these develop in the group, and the trust within the group develop around these.

The primary ‘glue’ that holds the group together is the trust as defined within the group beliefs, values, etc. The ultimate threat to breaking this in-group trust is rejection from the group, which is such a powerful motivator it has led to people abandoning their personal values, even to the point of killing other people.

Boundary conditions

Groups are not defined solely by their similarities and shared culture. They can be even more clearly defined by what is not in the group. A non-group person is immediately subject to a lower level of trust and will be scrutinized for other factors through which their potential behavior can be predicted.

Within the group, out-group people and other groups are often caricatured with exaggerated non-group personality factors such as stupidity or cruelty. These not only serve to isolate the group, they also emphasize the values, etc. of the group through which in-group trust is maintained.


Induction into a group can often be through a ritualized process, from the ancient practices of the freemasons to the group beatings (and worse) of Los Angeles street gangs. Professional associations have similar practices, where entrants must submit to examination and regular financial payments.

A person that has had difficulty in joining a group will be less inclined to leave, as the ‘sunk cost’ of membership can never be recouped. It is also a known psychological effect that we deduce our beliefs from our actions, and the neophyte will often deduce that they have accepted the group trust rules because of the actions that they took to join the group.

Boundary threat

When the group is threatened in some way, they will forget internal problems and band together against the threat. In these situations in-group trust goes sharply up and out-group trust sharply down. Take for example a wartime situation. The people under threat work closely and passionately together to defeat the enemy, often trusting an in-group person with their lives, even though no trust has been developed between them, other than their membership of the same group.

The opposite also occurs: when there is no threat, in-group bickering and schisms form and this threat from within can lead to subdivision of the group. This threat often leads leaders to create crises and other threats that will heighten fears of damage to the group and lead to more cohesive, trusting behavior.

So what?

So manage your relationship with groups carefully. Act differently if you are an outside, but also seek to achieve the status of trusted advisor.

When joining a group, be prepared to go through an induction ritual and work to demonstrate how you have adopted group rules and processes.


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