One definition of trust is “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something.” Trust can also be referred to as a vulnerability: You are risking something you value to be vulnerable to another person’s actions.

Davis kaitlyn
Ag Educator / LaCrosse County / University of Wisconsin Extension

By exploring our own definition of trust, we can try understanding how others trust. This can assist in clearer communication when navigating conflict.

One question to ask as you explore trust would be, “What does it look like in your farm operation when there is trust?” On the flip side, ask “What does the farm operation look like when there is lack of trust?” The answers to those questions are the first steps in building the bridge of trust on your farm.

Three types of trust

Research and literature regarding trust outlines three different types.

1. Interpersonal trust is based on the relationship you have with another person and the length of time you have known them. That trust is ongoing and predictable.


An example could be the relationship between the owner generation and the successor generation. If the owner generation encourages the successor generation to get a degree and/or work off-farm, they trust that the successor generation will eventually come back and apply the skills and knowledge they gained to the farm operation. For some, this may seem like a risk, since there is the possibility the next generation may not return. If they do not return, the owner generation can trust that the successor generation made a more informed decision based on new experiences and opportunities.

Through an owner-employee lens, interpersonal trust may provide an environment where employees are willing to speak up and assist with solutions to a problem before it snowballs into a bigger issue.

2. Competence trust is based on skills, abilities and experiences, building trust in a person’s judgment or advice. In a farm business, this could be looking at what certifications, education or experiences an employee has that they can incorporate into the operation. From a farm succession standpoint, it could be that the owner generation recognizes the successor’s ability to make sound decisions for smaller management decisions and begins to transfer more responsibility to the successor.

3. Institutional trust is based on whether the system, rules and/or processes are trustworthy. From an employee perspective, this is trusting that they will be paid on time each month and/or the benefits package is robust enough to cover medical costs. Another example might be creating a process that allows employees to identify problems or express concerns without negative consequences.

This form of trust is also necessary in farm succession planning. If the owner generation is transparent about farm financials with the successor, it creates a culture that the owner generation isn’t hiding problems. Providing written milestones and timelines for transition and a plan for treating heirs fairly can also open a clear line of communication between generations.

Barriers to trust

There are many ways in which trust can be broken. Highlighted below are four ways that are universal for family businesses, according to Alan L. Carsrud, author of the book Understanding Family Business.

  • Lying. When people lie, they are not only breaking the other person’s trust, but it also shows they don’t have trust in the other person.

  • Failure to meet obligations (financial or otherwise). If someone doesn’t do what they say they are going to do, this could cause larger issues later. If they don’t pay bills on time or aren’t fixing key equipment needed for daily chores, this can cause productivity to suffer and create financial strain. This can even lead to trouble with lenders and/or legal consequences.

  • Failure to follow agreed-upon procedures. When employees or owners of the farm don’t follow the rules set up to keep the business productive and safe, it creates a culture of mistrust and can lead to unsafe conditions. This could create labor issues, including high employee turnover and/or labor shortages. If someone isn’t following the rules and it is not corrected, this could be seen as an act of favoritism and could lead to others following suit.

  • Lack of transparency. When information is not shared or withheld from family members and key non-family members, it leads to the perception that they can’t be trusted to make decisions for the farm business.

Building the bridge

Bridges help us to get over barriers and from one point to another. To help you visualize building a metaphorical bridge, a visual (Figure 1) might help.

Before building the bridge, it is important to understand the current situation or conditions. On the left-hand side of the illustration, write down answers to these questions:

  • What does trust look like in this situation?
  • Are there events in the past that have broken trust?
  • How is communication for everyone involved?

On the left side of the bridge, you should also acknowledge that there are strengths and resources available which can help make the process of bridge building smoother.

The next step would be to visualize the end goal. Having a clear idea of what that goal is will aid you in knowing when you have achieved it. For farm businesses, this will look different for each person involved. The end goal might be to completely transfer management responsibilities from the owner generation to the successor generation within the next five years. A simpler goal might be having more consistent farm meetings that include an agenda to stay on task.

Bridges require posts

Building a bridge may seem as easy as laying a few boards across a short gap. This is most likely a temporary and unsustainable solution to reach the other side. This is where posts come into play. The following posts are suggestions to form a foundation you can use to span the barriers to trust when building your bridge:

  • Care. This could be seen as a cornerstone piece: If care is not there, the bridge may not be sturdy enough to get you to the other side. Care is having the other person’s thoughts and feelings in mind when making decisions or taking action. If employees know that the farm owner has their interests at heart, they are more likely to accept changes as they happen.
  • Reliability. You must do what you say you will do. If there is consistent follow-through on decisions and actions, this leads to a strong culture of trust. Failure to follow through can lead to mistrust.
  • Competency. Are the skills, experiences and expertise present to get the task done? This type of trust can be seen when management is being transferred, whether that be from one generation to the next or an employee taking on a new managerial role.
  • Clarity. Are the expectations made clear? Does everyone involved with a decision or action know what the expectations are? Do they know who they can turn to if they are unsure of what action steps to take next?
  • Integrity/Accountability. When a mistake is made, do you own up to it? Have you apologized and offered ways to make amends? Being accountable and having integrity is choosing to be courageous and step up, even if the situation may be uncomfortable. It also means you’re willing to ask for help when you need it.

When creating the posts for your bridge, you may find other values fit your situation better. The ones listed above are not the be-all-and-end-all, but can at least be a start to breaking through the circle of mistrust and creating a culture of trust on your farm.

If you are looking for more information on building trust on your farm, contact me for a list of resources.