How do you build (or rebuild) trust at work?
How easy would it be to sort out difficulties at work if you didn't trust your colleagues to respond well?
How motivating would it be if once you raised a concern with your manager, nothing was done about it?
How good would you feel coming to work if you thought your colleagues were critical of you, behind your back?
There is no doubt that trust is fundamental to building strong team relationships. Well, any relationship for that matter. Without trust in workplaces, it becomes very difficult to work well as a team or raise concerns with others - small issues can easily grow into larger concerns.
When there is a lack of trust over time, it can be easy to become cynical, not believing what others are saying. And certainly, without the goodwill that comes with trust, relationships suffer and it becomes harder to elicit cooperation with change.
So, what helps to build trust at work or to rebuild it if it has taken a battering?
Respectful, supportive relationships: There is nothing quite like a good relationship with someone at work to encourage trust. If you know someone well, they become more approachable and it becomes easier to sort difficulties out when needed. However, it is all too easy to become too busy with what is in our in-box to speak with people.
We need to remind ourselves that touching base with people, asking how they are going, is one of the most important things we can do. When there has been a strained workplace relationship, we can at least take small steps over time to close the distance.
Safe, predictable behaviour: It can be very hard to build trust with someone who is disrespectful or unpredictable. I heard someone speak recently of a colleague who seemed to have a different personality from day to day. One day, she was charming. The next, the devil incarnate! We need to feel safe around people to be able to let down our guard.
This is especially the case when we are vulnerable in some way - when we are raising concerns or there has been a challenge of some sort. It is, of course, more helpful when people respond in a supportive way, looking for solutions for the future, rather than engaging in blame or recriminations.
Actions match words: It certainly helps people to build trust in us when we do what we say. It is not encouraging of trust when people say the right things, but their actions are saying something else altogether. Actions do speak louder than words. What actions would others like to see from you?
We are allowed to be human of course - as long as we acknowledge when our behaviour is not up to standard, amends are made, and a commitment is made to doing things differently for the future. Then, of course, the actions need to match.
Being transparent: This is one of the best ways to encourage trust. Managers and team members who demonstrate trust have nothing to hide and keep team members fully informed. They take a risk with others in being prepared to have difficult conversations when needed. They are also genuine about how they are feeling about a particular challenge, although they may also be modelling helpful attitudes to that challenge.
I am not saying that we trust everyone completely. With some people who have a reputation for being unpredictable or untrustworthy, we do need to be careful. However, even with these individuals, trust can often be built with small steps.
There are also, of course, confidential matters management cannot be fully open about - such as actions they may be taking to address an employee's performance problems. However, when it is appropriate to do so, they can at least reassure people who are concerned, that appropriate actions are taking place, but they need to respect that person's confidentiality.
Mending relationships when needed: Where the trust has taken a battering, perhaps through a workplace conflict of some sort, these people have to first decide that they want to save this relationship - that it has not been burned beyond repair. To rebuild trust, at least one person needs to decide that their working relationship is more important than the difficulties they have experienced.
Some people say that they want a fresh start and reassure people that they mean this. Some allude to the importance of the work they do in the hope that both decide that this purpose is more important than the difficulties they have had.
In such situations, it can help when at least one of these people can give a genuine apology for their contribution to the difficulty or for how their behaviour came across. Hopefully, the other person will reciprocate. And of course these words need to be backed up by actions each person perceives as helpful.
If there is a perception that the management team is untrustworthy, then senior and middle managers need to counter this negative stereotype by deliberately acting in ways inconsistent with this stereotype - building relationships, being consistent, making it obvious when they are acting on people's concerns, demonstrating trust in team members.
It is important to remember that rebuilding trust is often a long-term project especially when there have been frustrations for some time or a negative workplace culture has developed.
But if key individuals are prepared to take small but meaningful steps over a period of time, than the conditions for trust can be rebuilt.
We all deserve to feel good coming to work and to have strong team relationships. Trust in our colleagues is an essential part of this.