Building Trust at Work – It’s not as easy as it looks.

trustLately I’ve been hearing about the significant role of trust in the workplace: People follow leaders that they trust. High-performing teams trust each other.  New-comers must quickly spot allies and enemies – so they know who to trust.

Trust is one of those slippery conceptual words that evokes all kinds of emotional reactions. I think that’s because so many people carry personal stories of work place pain and betrayal. What is more insulting than to say someone “can’t be trusted”?  If you are gossiping, there is no better way to imply they are very, very bad without having to specify exactly what has been done.  Trust is also an insidious word that can quickly cause work place anxiety because it is so poorly defined.  I have had many people tell me about a new leader:  “I intuitively knew, right from the start, that I couldn’t trust them.” Now isn’t that a hard thing to overcome?

Let’s see if I can make the concept a little more concrete, along with giving you some tips on how to increase the trust others feel toward you.

Trust is an outcome in a relationship where several behaviours, characteristics and attitudes are being assessed.  What’s slippery is that each person puts different weighting on what particular aspect means most to them. For some people its technical competency, for others experience. Still others only trust those people whose personal life they admire. You may inadvertently be creating distrust in someone because they only trust people who (fill in their version of what trustworthiness looks like) – and you don’t. Until you figure out what they need to see demonstrated, you’ll never make their trusted list. It’s okay to ask someone: “What can I do to help you trust my actions in this?”

Research shows that several key factors can increase trust in the workplace.  Usually, we trust others when we share a common goal or interest. If that isn’t the case, and we can’t create a common goal, then we look to see if the other person has a high regard for us.  In other words, I want to see that you care about what I care about. And if that’s not the reality, than I want to see that you care about me. Being more transparent, sharing more information and disclosing something personal can often uncover commonality.  However, if we differ, your ability to show respect for my viewpoint and dignity may make up the difference.  Wise leaders learn that gestures of respect must be applied equally, regardless of  the other person’s status, if they are to be trusted.

Whatever gestures you make, remember that trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.

It’s hard to earn because trust takes time to build. One of the ways in which our brains work is to store memories about the people we work with, and over time we begin to notice patterns. This leads us to make inferences about how a person will act in the future. Of course, this brilliant cognitive ability saves us the trouble of trying to figure every one out each new day of work (remember the hilarious movie “50 First Dates”!) But it also creates problems, especially for long-term employees in one company. Even when you develop a new skill and more effective, healthier ways of behaving people will remember the “old” you, and they will expect and trust that you will behave as you have before. Leading well is a skill that is learned the hard way. Many managers have suffered from one embarrassing blunder early in their career, only to realize it can take months or even years to recover the team’s trust. Best thing to do is to confess your mistake and show confidence in your current self.

Trust is easy to lose because our pattern-making also relies on seeing consistency. Many staff say they feel better with a leader who is reliably the same day to day. Predictability has become so important in many people’s minds that any deviation from previous behaviour is immediately suspected. Yet, the human condition is ripe for inconsistency. As we grow, develop and learn new skills we change. As our situations and experiences impact us, we change. As our hormones, emotions, physical states and moods impact us, we change. One would wish for freedom and unconditional support when making change. Many leaders who are in Coaching and intensely working on new competencies are discouraged by the lack-luster support of those around them. “I can’t trust what they’ll do tomorrow” a staff person might lament. Yet, often we are forced back into the discarded behaviours that others expect, in order that they can relax around us. Many dieters are pulled back to the buffet table by well-meaning friends! It takes a lot of courage to sustain a change that others don’t yet trust. Leaders who are able to verbally link what they do to what they believe, to a stable set of core values, have a better chance. In this way, new behaviours while strange and awkward, will not seem illogical or arbitrary to others.

Focus on reliability instead of consistency. Especially in chaotic times, reliability  goes a long way toward building trust. In organizations that move at break-neck speed, where leaders are called upon to respond urgently, there is the fear that what was said today is forgotten tomorrow. Followers want to know that you will stand by your word and keep your promises.  That means you need to be careful what you say in times of crisis – never placating or creating false hope with empty promises. It also means you need a decent method for organizing yourself. Lost emails, lost files, missed deadlines are all deadly sins in the arena of reliability. It may seem a petty concern to someone dealing with high-stakes decisions, but sloppiness in reliability can be misconstrued as disrespect for others and it’s an Achilles heel worth fixing. Forgetting or misplacing a promise is one thing, but retracting it in the face of adversity is another. A leader must demonstrate the courage to stand up for their decisions, not quickly withdrawing at the first sign of trouble.

Image Source: “Mike” Michael L. Baird, flickr.bairdphotos.com

One thought on “Building Trust at Work – It’s not as easy as it looks.


  1. Hi Jill,
    Your post makes a lot of sense. I’d be interested to read your thoughts on the flipside of trust. There’s much written about the responsibilitites of leaders to demonstrate trustworthiness but little or nothing on the art (and responsibility) of trusting someone. I think people forget that trusting (like following) is an active process.
    Liam

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