Trust is the foundation of a thriving workplace culture. Learn why it's important and how to develop it in our ultimate guide.
Trust is like air – you take it for granted when it’s present, but without it, you suffocate. Romantic relationships, business, medicine, and politics – any human activity is built on trust. It is the root cause of many problems of ours, and it’s often enough to solve trust issues for the rest of the issues to solve themselves.
In the workplace, the role of trust cannot be overestimated. Interacting with other people, we must be able to rely on them, otherwise this interaction will not be productive. Unfortunately, in many organizations, the level of trust is too low. Sometimes, critically low.
In this article, we’ve described the concept of trust and provided some tips on how to build trust in the workplace.
Nothing is as inspiring as an offering of trust. Nothing is as profitable as the economics of trust. Nothing has more influence than a reputation of trust. - Stephen R. Covey, American author and speaker
Trust is a complex phenomenon that leaves room for many interpretations. Paul Thagard, Canadian philosopher and cognitive scientist, explains trust, providing the following definitions:
It would be fair to say that for an organization, trust is a matter of life and death. Without trust, companies cannot hold together, falling like a house of cards. How can a company thrive, if people working there are unreliable, disengaged, or disloyal?
Trust is essential for creating a healthy work environment – an environment where employees feel secure and motivated to produce great results, acting as a team. Trust enhances collaboration and teamwork. It improves employee engagement and productivity. It helps make better decisions and decreases work-related stress and burnout.
These are not just words but facts:
A huge role in building trust is played by a company leader. This is why trust should be a value, imposed from the top down.
Unfortunately, nowadays there's a tendency for trust getting into decline in organizations. Gallup Panel survey found that only 23% of employees trust the leadership of their organization. This is not good news for businesses. When people lose trust in leadership, they are guided by self-interest and definitely don’t care as much for the well-being of the organization.
According to Frances X. Frei, Professor of Service Management at Harvard Business School, and Anne Morris, the executive founder of the Leadership Consortium, trust consists of three core drivers: authenticity, logic, and empathy. Together, they constitute a so-called “trust triangle.” When one of these components is missing, trust begins to fade away.
While Frei and Morris discuss these drivers in relation to leaders, the ideas can be applied to anyone working on a team:
Being authentic means being “your real self” – in other words, expressing your true thoughts and feelings. When people feel they don’t have access to your true identity, you will most probably get trust issues.
The easiest way to understand if you’re authentic is to answer these questions: do you act the same way around your colleagues as you do in your family circle? Or do you have a professional persona? If yes, why so?
Putting a mask on, you may be getting certain advantages. However, if you conceal your true face, it will negatively impact your ability to lead. It will create a sense of artificiality, and people will not be willing to follow someone who’s not genuine.
Unfortunately, being authentic is easier said than done. In hostile work environments, ruled by prejudices and stereotypes, expressing your true feelings can be risky. For example, women are generally not expected to show anger in the workplace – even more, they’re not expected to be ambitious, because ambition in females is often frowned upon.
The same concerns workplaces with a low level of psychological safety. When people are not welcome to speak up, and daring to do so may lead to problems with leadership, they will not let themselves be authentic.
Authenticity plays an important role in diverse teams. Diversity can create a great competitive advantage – but this will not happen if team members are not authentic with each other.
In fact, diverse teams can underperform homogeneous teams. As humans, we are prone to the common information effect – simply speaking, we focus on what we have in common with other people. It's possible to overcome this effect though, when differences between the people on the team are addressed correctly.
If the reasoning and judgment behind your arguments are sound, people will trust you. If not – they won’t.
Leaders should speak the language of facts, looking for reliable data to build their arguments upon. There is nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know something. Learn from other people, use reliable resources, and say only those things you’re sure about.
For leaders, the accuracy of what they say is just as important as how they say it. The value of your ideas may be high, but you also have to communicate them effectively.
People trust leaders who truly care for them. Who will want to be led by an egotistic person?
Unfortunately, people (all of us, not just leaders) often show a lack of empathy and mutual trust in the workplace. Those who are ambitious may get impatient with less motivated colleagues, without trying to understand the reasons behind that lack of motivation.
We don’t pay enough attention to each other, and modern technological devices make this situation even worse. We multitask, checking our phones and not really noticing what’s happening around us. This way, we show disrespect to others.
We should try to be more empathetic and shift the focus from our needs to the needs of other people. It will change the quality of our interactions and, of course, build trust.
Trust is a multi-level phenomenon. For an organization to function successfully, trust must be an element of every kind of work relationship.
Carol Kinsey Goman, an international speaker on Leadership Presence and Body Language, determines 6 levels of trust in a workplace:
To be a great contributor, people must feel that their opinions, knowledge, and experience matter.
If you don’t trust yourself, why should anybody else trust you? - Frances X. Frei, Anne Morris
Trust grows out of interaction, and it typically takes an extended period of time for people to start trusting each other. However, as Goman points out, time spent getting to know each other at the beginning of a project usually pays off, as this helps team members build trust later on.
Team leaders can create “mini-cultures” of trust within their work group. To do so, they need to make their people feel safe and valued – for example, encourage everyone’s input, set clear expectations, and develop a culture of a healthy conflict.
People will not truly care about the projects they are not passionate about. For this reason, leaders must show the project has real meaning – it will inspire team members to contribute.
Leaders should show interest in employees’ opinions and genuinely care about them.
Teams can achieve things that would never be achieved individually. Successful collaborative relationships are impossible without trust.
Trust is not built in big, sweeping moments. It’s built in tiny moments every day. - Brene Brown, American professor and author
To build an environment of trust and mutual respect, everyone needs to participate and consciously make some effort. However, as we have mentioned, leaders have a special role, as they are responsible for the overall situation and, moreover, set an example with their own behavior.
There are many strategies for building trust. Applied together, they will form a strong foundation for a more positive work environment:
Honesty can be uncomfortable. But pretending that an issue doesn’t exist will always backfire, sooner or later. This is why it’s necessary to tell the truth, even when it hurts. Truth is the starting point from which you can make changes you need to make.
In her book “Radical Candor” Kim Scott explains that candor is an essential factor of success – and, of course, of building trust in the workplace.
“Radical candor” is a management approach that consists of two parts – caring personally and challenging directly. The first part is self-explanatory. Without a certain level of sensitivity, managers turn into aggressive tyrants. As for challenging directly, managers have to set requirements that would get people to use their potential – otherwise, they may start treating people with “ruinous empathy,” which is bad for both the business and the employees.
For example, the company culture of Bridgewater Associates, an investment management firm, is based on the principle that “no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.” Ray Dalio, the firm’s founder, considers silence as simply an unethical choice.
At Bridgewater, no one talks behind others’ backs. Every employee must keep an Issue log where they keep a record of their own mistakes and criticism received, as well as the information about their behavior change. Besides, each employee has so-called “baseball cards” containing assessment statistics which are used by managers for making decisions about promotions, compensation, and firing.
Dalio believes that people must learn from mistakes – and candor helps them notice those mistakes, in the first place. This way, candor is a great tool for trust-building.
No one will trust a manager who keeps important information secret – for example, information about upcoming changes that will influence everybody in the office. It may create an impression that managers consider employees less important and do not care about their opinions and well-being.
An open-door policy can bring many benefits to a company. Employees will feel more vested in the organization and try to do their best. Besides, when people are aware of the processes going on, they gossip less – and as we know, gossip can be damaging.
This is all helping to improve accountability, fairness, and better practices – and in many ways is helping to ensure everyone is happy and on the same page. - Gary Nealon
Gary Nealon, the President of Nealon Solutions, underlines that while openness and building trust are crucial, we should draw a parallel between information that should and should not be shared.
Company vision: 60% of employees do not know their company vision, and only 40% understand company goals. These results are pessimistic. When people are so disconnected from the company, they lose the sense of purpose, and naturally, this negatively impacts employee engagement.
Products and services: This one is obvious, yet it may happen that the team doesn’t fully understand the product updates.
Sales results: Employees should be aware of the financial situation of the company.
Internal changes: People on the team should be notified about the changes in things like benefit packages or vacation days as soon as possible.
Salaries: People rely on their salaries, so when salaries are going to change, employees need to be given plenty of notice.
Employee performance: Performance reviews are a great tool for professional improvement. Employees must have information about their performance – yet, it should be delivered in private.
Decisions that are not yet finalized: Decisions can change, so sharing information about things like salary negotiations or downsizing before it’s approved is risky, as it may negatively affect employee morale.
Opinions about coworkers: Complaints about colleagues, company policies, and executive decisions, especially expressed by managers, can create a lot of tension.
Personal information: Medical issues and personal problems are confidential information that must be kept secret.
There is a golden rule: reprimand people privately and show appreciation publicly.
Let people know they’re doing a great job. It's best to do it in real time, especially if it takes you no more than one minute. For building trust, everyday positive feedback is way more useful than quarterly or yearly performance reviews.
Gallup research (2021) shows that employees who get daily feedback from their manager are 2.1 times more likely to trust their leadership.
It’s also important to take employee feedback seriously. Employees can provide valuable information about the effectiveness of the work process. Gathering employee feedback, you get a chance to find out about problematic areas – and at the same time, you show that you respect your team members and trust their competence. This can improve employee engagement.
According to the findings of “The 2022 Elderman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust in the Workplace”, there is a direct correlation between the trust of leaders to employees and the level of employee trust in the whole organization.
If a CEO trusts employees, employees trust their employer (92 %), their manager (90%), their CEO (87%), and their HR (85%). And when employees don’t feel that the CEO trusts them, they distrust the management and the whole workplace.
This does not concern CEOs only. At the level of middle and lower management, it’s also very important to demonstrate trust to team members. It means, in the first place, empowering employees by encouraging their autonomy. Let them work with minimum supervision.
Some organizations have gone even further and shifted to completely self-managed models. For example, Morning Star, the most profitable tomato processor in America, has one of the most unusual organizational models in the world.
There are no managers – instead, there are five hundred “colleagues” who act like self-managing professionals. These colleagues write contracts with one another. They don’t have specific roles – they have a right to get involved where they think their skills will be best fitted.
Evidence shows that radically self-managed companies like (Morning Star, Buurtzorg, FAVI, RHD, etc.) are highly profitable. Adopting a self-managing business model can be a radical step, but granting employees more authority sounds like a wise option.
Let people talk, and pay undivided attention to what they say. For building trust, listening should mean more than not interrupting and putting your phone down – it’s about trying to understand the true message behind the words.
But you cannot listen if people do not speak. In hostile work environments, people tend to keep their opinions to themselves, since speaking up may lead to penalties. This is why to build trust in the workplace, it’s important to create psychological safety– an environment, devoid of fear to speak up and act.
Willingness to listen to feedback that challenges your ideas or decisions is not something that most people, especially bosses, can boast of. It takes courage to admit other people may know better. However, timely remarks from colleagues can prevent wrong choices and dangerous outcomes.
Trust and psychological safety are closely connected, even though they’re not identical. While emotional trust is based on an expectation that someone will act in a specific manner in the future, psychological safety is tied to immediate experience:
One way to put this is that trust is about giving others the benefit of the doubt, and psychological safety relates to whether others will give you the benefit of the doubt when, for instance, you have asked for help or admitted a mistake. - Amy Edmondson, “The Fearless Organization”
This way, by developing conditions for employees to feel secure here and now, you can invest in building trust in the future.
Vulnerability is often considered a weakness. We think we’re expected to be professional and not let emotions affect us. But we are humans, and emotions are inseparable from us.
Brene Brown, the author of “Dare to Lead,” explains that it takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable at work. The belief that vulnerability is shameful is deep-seated in our minds. For this reason, we put on “armor” – we try to be perfect and always right, we resort to sarcasm and criticism. But this doesn’t make us happier or more productive.
One of the myths about human relationships, according to Brown, is that trust comes before vulnerability – while in fact, they grow together:
Trust is the stacking and layering of small moments and reciprocal vulnerability over time. - Brene Brown.
It’s okay if coworkers know you’re upset. It’s okay when you ask for help, work-related or not, - even if you’re a boss. It’s okay to admit you don’t know something. This means you’re honest – not only as far as facts are concerned, but also honest about your feelings. And it definitely helps trust thrive.
No matter what your company works on – software development, tomato processing, or steelmaking – your employees are people, made up from flesh and blood. They go through personal crises, suffer from insecurities, get sick, have families, and personal lives, and, once in a while, need a vacation.
In tough life situations, we do not feel secure and need support. Noticing that someone is sad or angry is step one. Asking if they need help is the second step. Sometimes a personal conversation will be enough to cheer someone up.
Treating colleagues like people, and not like impersonal creatures who just have to do their job, will help create a culture of partnership and trust.
Like in any other environment, trust in the workplace develops gradually. Building trust requires sincerity and consistency, but the efforts will definitely pay off. Employee engagement, job satisfaction, and progress are impossible without trust. So strengthen trust in your company by establishing an open-door policy and creating meaningful bonds among team members.
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