Optimizing for Trust in the Age of COVID

KiKi L'Italien

Technology was supposed to help us. 

Do you remember the promise? Tech was supposed to help us to unite, to come together.

We had the vision of our virtual hands reaching out across the world…to one another. Freedom in the fiber-optics!

What happened?

Isolated and afraid.

How do you explain how we can live in a time when we have something like social media and endless online groups to choose from, and yet we have more people who are reporting feelings of social isolation than ever before?

How can we expect something better to happen in our world, to solve big problems, if we feel disconnected from each other? Or when we can’t trust the institutions we’ve had in place to protect us for years?

The Gallup Confidence in Institutions research tells us that in the US, as a nation, we’ve lost trust in many of our National institutions. Net positive trust is −37% for Congress, −5% for big business, 2% for public schools, and 10% for the medical system. And that’s from research in 2018-2019. What do you think those percentages would look like today?

We are wary (and weary) of so much…

How are we supposed to trust anything when a stupid quiz I filled out on Facebook six years ago could be providing my personal data to nefarious entities on the dark web?

…Cambridge Analytica, #MeToo, The Catholic Church, police brutality, Black Lives Matter…

How am I supposed to trust anyone or anything when institutions like The Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, or even our local police departments carry a stigma that causes us all to pause when we need them?

That lack of trust spills over into other areas of our lives, too.

How much trust did you feel the very first time your child was invited to a sleepover? 

It makes sense that our trust is weak right now.

Can technology help us?

We worry that we might have unhealthy addictions to our technology. Or that “they” might be listening in on us. That our technology might, in fact, be hurting us.

Our smartphones often sleep closer to us than our partners. [NYTimes]

And we’d like to blame technology for it all. For all of our problems.

But here are three things we need to understand:

  • Technology gives us enormous power to connect with and mobilize large groups of people.
  • Humans need community. We need each other. Humans not only need to feel like we belong, but it is how we have evolved to fight our biggest challenges and survive.
  • Community begins and ends with trust. Without trust, there is no community. At least, no healthy community.

This trust issue is a big one.

Many of us in the world are living in a time of an uncomfortable transition with trust. Trust isn’t necessarily in a decline so much as it’s moving sideways. It’s moving sideways because our technology and society are changing. The foundations and landmarks of our social contracts, our relationships, and capabilities are changing and the new rules are still being figured out right now.

There is a collective distrust of the world around us and that seems terrible. It sounds like the end. But I don’t think it is and here is why.

We are still adapting and adjusting to this relatively new way of life. We are evolving into new responsibilities, social behaviors, and new threats in our environment. We are in the middle of developing a different form of awareness for this new way of life.

Our phones are not the enemy. 

Social media is not the enemy.

Technology by itself is not the enemy.

Isolation and loneliness are what we should be fighting. But we need trust. And we need each other.

United we stand. Divided we fall.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

We figured out a long time ago, us humans, that we needed to work together to survive. We weren’t the biggest or the fastest animals on the planet, but we could think and work together to make it to the next day. We could hunt together. Pool our resources. Survive attacks and harsh conditions. As long as we had each other.

We evolved with that need to belong hardwired into our DNA so that we would continue to survive.

We created technology to help us.

The wheel.

The lever.

The tractor.


Yes, I know it seems odd to think of our favorite maligned social media, a network like Twitter, as a helpful tool to help us thrive as humans. But it has the power to connect and organize people for good as well as for ill. It’s the abuse of trust and leadership that can hurt us, not the tech.

Disruption is messy.

Like babies, we discover a new toy and then discover how to royally screw it up. And then…ultimately, hopefully, how to fix it.

But we need to shorten our learning curve. Our world faces great challenges today. Our environment is not only breaking but in some situations, broken beyond hope.

Healthcare and education in the United States are in dire need of new direction. Systemic racism has got to stop. Fear and distrust in the government, healthcare, and science are all climbing.

But! We have an ancient, wired-in strength that we can use. Community.

Divided we fall, but united we survive.

Our ability to come together in communities, in tribes that allow us to do greater things than we ever could by ourselves, this is part of our heritage and part of the blood that runs through our veins.

We humans have already created exactly the tools we need for this fight. Our technology allows us to coordinate, communicate, and mobilize faster and more effectively than ever before.

So why are we struggling and how can we fix it?

It is time to invest in building tribes we can trust – and you can’t buy or automate trust.

Trust is also not the kind of thing that you win once and never have to worry about it again. Trust is cultivated over time.

To build strong communities that people can believe in, we shouldn’t be worrying as much about optimizing for search engines in our marketing. We should be optimizing for trust in our communications.

Here are 6 ways we build trust in a tribe:

  • We communicate often and reliably.
  • We are clear in our intention and purpose.
  • We show care for the individual so they feel heard.
  • We show competence and share our expectations.
  • We show up when we say we will.
  • We give people control.

This list seems simple enough, but we’ve created words like “ghosting” for the types of behaviors that are becoming commonplace. Creating a tribe we can trust is not always simple.

Let’s look at what goes into communicating often and reliably. Why is that so important?

The repeated behavior that establishes a pattern tells the brain that this new person is predictable and safe. It also trains the brain to expect a certain behavior at a certain time. The more often you can produce this and prove your reliability, the faster you will establish trust in your audience’s brain. If you can create some kind of easy response or engagement with the person, you can also establish yourself as a habit.

For one of my communities, Association Chat, we started meeting for a tweetchat every Tuesday at 2 pm ET without fail. We did this for years and then it became a live online interview. But it established a pattern and people were able to plan around it.

Clarity in our intention and purpose means our intentions and actions are aligned and reflect our goals honestly.

Have you ever heard from a random person out of the blue who you went to high school with who acted like they were interested in catching up, only to find out they wanted to sell something to you? Did that maneuver inspire trust in you? A bait and switch in relationships is never good for creating a strong thriving loyalty.

To show that we care about another person’s thoughts or engagement means we recognize and see them.

That we view them as important. It lends them the value that they can then give back to the community in the form of time and attention.

Care is the currency of loyalty.

Do you notice when people show up or don’t? I’ve heard people share with much bitterness how they gave years to an association or a church and then when they stopped showing up for a while didn’t receive one phone call.

What was missing? The care. In each case, the person felt like no one cared if they were a part of the group or not. We have to show we care about each other. People pay attention to this.

Competence makes the rest of the group feel safe.

It is why the people who take positions, like “treasurer,” are so important to get right. And why it is important to relay the results of group meetings back to the rest of the community.

If you don’t show competence, the tribe won’t feel safe. Trust won’t develop.

Show up.

We notice when people show up for us and when they don’t. Commit to showing up for your tribe so they can commit to showing up for you.

Give people control.

We know from research, like Decision to Volunteer, that the more investment of time and energy a person gives to an effort, the more personal reward an individual receives, and the more they value that effort. Give people some control so they have a stake in the game and feel like they can directly impact outcomes.

This is how trust is built. 

Even if you don’t have a group to lead yet, each one of us as individuals can make things better for ourselves and for the world. We can help our tribe find us!

Here is how you do it…

Every time you create a message. An email. A post. A text. Ask yourself if you’ve optimized it for trust.

Does it inspire trust in you? Do your words help others to find you trustworthy?

Because we need to work with others to do big things. We need a community to solve big problems. Community begins and ends with trust.

And yes, trust is hard.

But with tribes we trust, we can change the world.


About the Author

KiKi L’Italien has been building tribes of all kinds for most of her life. From playground mystery clubs to poetry readings to international chapter relations to powerful online communities that are over 11-years-old, KiKi enjoys bringing people together.

As a component relations professional, KiKi researched what works in making people feel the value of community, what inspires them to join in the first place, and what keeps them coming back.

As a digital strategist, she’s established her career around creating communication that helps messages to be seen, compels people to act, and helps people feel understood.

KiKi believes when you combine those skills that build trust and community with the right technology, you can accomplish anything. You can reach her by emailing her at [email protected].