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How To Build Trust In The Workplace

A foundation of trust is the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict on teams.

illustration of cute monsters playing together as a team
illustration of cute monsters playing together as a team

In his book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team", Patrick Lencioni places trust front and center because a lack of trust makes even basic relationships extremely difficult to sustain. Professionally, without those relationships, all we have left are strict policies and procedures - boxing-in human beings to ensure minimum, predictable output.

Over the last decade, companies have increasingly been encouraged to tell their workers to 'bring their whole selves to work'. There is an interesting trust-building bargain underlying this advice. By opening up and sharing our 'true selves', we increase the risk that we will trigger conflict with those around us.

That willingness to risk conflict by stating our beliefs / positions (in turn) earns us greater respect for vulnerability / authenticity. This fosters trust.

In essence, we are being told: "do a thing that risks more potential conflict so we can trust you more". This gets to the heart of how conflict and trust are so often interdependent; trust (like a principle) is essentially meaningless unless tested.

More generally, we instinctively understand the happiness that comes from working with (and relating to) those we trust. We know how valuable it is to be in a high-trust state with our colleagues. That said, there is a big leap from simply wanting trust to building / maintaining it.

The research

A 2016 study concluded that less than half of global professionals trust their employer, manager or team/colleagues. At the root of this fact were three main psychological postures...

  • "You aren't as invested in me as much as you are in others or as you much as you should be" (unfair comp, promo policies)
  • "Expectations either weren't clear ... or they were but you didn't deliver on them" (lack of leadership, lack of commitment, failure to fulfill promises)
  • "This doesn't feel safe" (anti-collaborative work environment, high employee turnover)

When we read this study, we found ourselves nodding along. This is almost exactly the set of dysfunctional beliefs we've encountered whenever trust is lacking in our clients' teams. Indeed, more often than not, we encounter a blend of all three.

We work on organizational and team culture challenges. Amongst other things, this involves deep-diving on trust. When we begin one of our workshops, we sometimes ask participants to share something they are excited about or concerned about. One thing that sometimes comes up in the concerns is the idea of trust falls (exhibit A...)

sticky note with question about trust falls
sticky note with question about trust falls

This video illustrates one of the reasons we don't use the trust fall exercise.

Another reason, is that there are much better ways to build deep and lasting trust...

Ten Important Factors Of (Re)Building Trust

Start by making sure that everyone involved is convinced that trust is important. Without this raw ingredient, it is extremely difficult to get to a positive and lasting outcome. Building and maintaining trust deserves deliberate thought and action to achieve consistency, clarity and safety...

  1. Don't over-promise: Work hard never to over-promise on an outcome (no matter how tempting).
  2. Be accountable: If you have promised something, make sure the beneficiaries know how to hold you accountable.
  3. Align on fairness: Perceptions of what constitutes fairness can be surprisingly variable. Ask questions and make sure the people involved converge on a well-aligned definition.
  4. Celebrate healthy conflict: Occasionally take a moment to celebrate healthy conflict. Those who trust each other deeply are able to disagree strongly and (in that process) create unexpected value.
  5. Give specific feedback: Empty or non-specific praise is sugar. It's sweet in small doses and poisonous in large ones. It also is one of the drivers of impostor syndrome in the workplace. Build trust by showing your colleagues that you care enough about them to invest time in thinking about the feedback they need. Don't allow a 'high-fives, low trust' culture to develop.
  6. Clarify individual accountability: Wherever possible, clarify individual accountability. It's an essential part of managing expectations (not to mention responsible management).
  7. Be vulnerable: This means sharing more of yourself (including some of your internal monologue).
  8. Introduce the elephant in the room: Sometimes, the lack of trust between two parties can be the most obvious thing they have in common. Pointing to it directly and being determined to manage / mitigate it together is a sure sign of mutual respect even when trust is low.
  9. Think playfully and embrace experiments: Be open to turning things on their head. See problems as puzzle boxes to be shared. Give others more room to breathe.
  10. Explore trust together: Talk with your team about the idea of "defaulting to trust". What does it mean? How can it be tested as a concept?

Trust is a difficult topic to navigate. If you're looking for support with your team, get in touch.

You might also be interested in our leadership training and leadership coaching, both of which are designed to unlock growing leaders.