Reliance, Trust, and the Nature of Teams: How Your Team Can Benefit from Understanding the Intriguing Connection Between These Two Concepts  

Reliance is a crucial aspect of strong and effective teams, and also greatly influences the amount of trust in the team environment on the whole. What is reliance, and how can team members learn to rely on each other in more functional ways? Let’s find out in this exploration of reliance on teams…

While there were many interesting ideas that came up In our series on team effectiveness models last week, one thing in particular caught my attention. So many of the models that we talked about listed “reliance” as one of the main factors or components in effective teams.

That got me thinking about the notion of “reliance” and what it actually means, especially in relation to the concept of “trust”. We’ve talked a lot about trust in our blog posts, but we have yet to explore reliance. 

This is possibly because the word “reliance” has some heavy connotations. We (myself included) often want to imagine that we are independent, and need to rely only on ourselves–in our work lives as well as our personal lives. Reliance can imply that we aren’t as “strong” or as “capable” as we imagine ourselves to be.  

But that way of thinking might actually be preventing real trust from taking place. In other words, the type of vulnerability that a healthy form of reliance requires may actually be a fundamental aspect to building a strong, trusting team environment. 

So in the following blog post we’ll look at reliance and what it means, how it relates to trust, and what team members can do to promote more productive forms of reliance among its members.

What is reliance?

Reliance can be thought of simply as needing someone or something else. When I rely on someone, I am acknowledging that I am in need of their services, their actions, or even their presence. I can rely on plumbers to fix my pipes, the post office to deliver my mail, or friends and family for my emotional well-being. 

Obviously, we can rely on objects as well–our phones are a good example of something we rely on for information, communication, and staying connected to the world (and increasingly other services like banking, directions, shopping, etc.).

Perhaps it’s because of this recent over-reliance on new technology (and our awareness of it) that we’re sometimes uncomfortable with the concept of reliance. And indeed, there’s not always such a clear distinction between healthy forms of reliance and unhealthy ones.  

Reliance can in fact be a tricky concept to define on its own, without talking about its linkages to trust. So it might be good to look at the relationship between the two, in order to see how they differ, and to gain certain insights into reliance and its importance.

Reliance versus trust: What’s the difference?

Let’s look at a conceptual framework of trust and reliance for our discussion going forward. The philosopher Annette Baier distinguishes trust and reliance by drawing out the notion of “goodwill” found specifically in trust. 

Reliance, then,  is simply a continued relationship based on habits and dependencies. However, trust is a specific form of reliance–a reliance on someone’s goodwill. This is why, according to Baier, people can never really trust technology, which can’t evoke that sense of goodwill that comes from human relationships.

This is an interesting distinction,and I do think there is relevance in looking at how our relationships and dependencies on things are in fact different from our reliance and trust in people. “Goodwill” evokes a kind of give-and-take, based on ethical and moral standards, that can only (so far) happen in human relationships. 

However, I think it relies on (pun intended) too many other abstract concepts. What is dependency? How do you define habit? How is “goodwill” different from “trust”?

So let’s take Baier’s point about reliance on people versus things and try to adapt it to a more simple answer to our question. 

Reliance and trust: Action and emotion

The way I see it, trust is not a specific kind of reliance but rather a complement of it. Both are different forms, so to speak, of the same thing–which is the human need to work with others and form communities. 

Let’s start with reliance. Reliance is the act of creating those relationships. It is the action of trust.

 When I rely on someone to fulfill certain needs, I am reaching out to them and acknowledging that I need them. But then I can’t rely on someone who doesn’t fulfill that need in some way. So the action requires both the reaching out of person A and the reaching back of person B.   

As you can see, reliance also requires some sort of shared vision, which both are responsible for. One person may at first be the creator of that vision, while the other person is the one working on it (think of a service-based relationship), but in the end both the person relying on the other as well as the one relied on are responsible for moving that vision forward to completion. 

Trust, on the other hand, is the emotion, or state of reliance. When I rely on someone and they fulfill their part of the relationship, that is when I gain a sense of trust in them. This allows the relationship to continue stably. That sense of trust permeates how I feel about that person, which allows me to continue relying on them.

Trust can also sometimes be felt beforehand. If someone has a reputation of being trustworthy. That means that they have been in other situations where people have relied on them, and have fulfilled their end to those relationships. 

Sometimes people can “look” or “seem” trustworthy. Again, it’s the emotion of being able to rely on them that is present. And in these cases, that trustworthiness still needs to be proven by actually relying on them. 

In this way, trust and reliance are mutually reinforcing. We trust someone more when we rely on them and they fulfill our needs. We also rely on people more the more trust we have in them. 

What this all means for teams

What does this all mean practically for teams and how they should think about creating more trust, which we know leads to greater teamwork and productivity?

For one thing, it means that teams that want to improve trust need to create more opportunities for reliance, and encourage team members to rely on each other more. Remember, if trust is the emotion or state of reliance, then getting team members to rely on each other will help build this sense of trust.

That means letting go of some of the stigma attached to reliance, as well as our egos. Reliance requires vulnerability, and acknowledging that we can’t do everything alone. This is a good thing. It’s good to have others around us that have different skills. It’s good that we can get other people to help us when we can’t do something.

In fact, it’s the very basis of teams. Teams are groups of individuals, each with their own skills, personalities, and unique perspectives. When combined together in the form of a community or team, these individuals can create something greater than the sum of its parts. 

But this requires reliance and trust. However, we tend to think of trust as something that naturally evolves over time, rather than as something that develops when we reach out to others, and when we place ourselves in that vulnerable position of needing someone else. 

Of course, you can’t force people to rely on each other. But you can create environments that are better suited for this to happen. Psychologically safe environments, for example, allow team members to share feelings more openly. This in turn makes it easier for teams to openly acknowledge when they feel overwhelmed or need help, which can lead to more reliance. 

Collaborative environments are also more conducive to trust and reliance. Instead of focusing on what each individual can do, and on individual talent and performance, think more about what the team can do, and on how your team is performing. Focus more on working together, sharing ideas, and pooling skills on projects, which will create more spaces for reliance.

Reliance and team building 

And as always, training can help. Building trust, and working on being more open to relying on people, takes time and practice. As we said, it isn’t something that is forced or mandated. 

Team building activities, like the ones at Invite Japan, can give your teams the space and time to practice relying on each other. The stakes are low, so that your team members won’t feel as pressured, and the activities are engaging and fun, which makes players feel more relaxed and capable of letting their guard down so that they can rely on fellow members more easily.   

Finally, team building forces teams to utilize different skills and viewpoints. It therefore makes teams realize, in a gentle way, that each team member on their own can’t get as far as when they rely on each other and work together. 


I hope that one of the takeaways of this blog post is that trust does not happen on its own. Reliance is what’s needed to get team members working together, and forming relationships that continue to be mutually strengthening. But reliance does mean that team members will need to feel vulnerable, and acknowledge that they can’t do everything on their own. 

This can be hard. Which is why an open, honest, and supportive team environment is the best thing you can have as a team–and why we are so committed to helping you achieve it. 

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