Building trust at work

Have you ever worked with colleagues who you simply didn’t trust? Or a manager you couldn't trust, who made decisions that favoured their friends at the expense of others?

There is no doubt that teams that trust each other outperform teams that don’t. And the amount of trust that team members have in their leadership is a major determinant of workplace culture.

That’s the consensus of recent studies of workplace engagement. You can see one of these studies here -Building Trust 2013: Workforce Trends Defining High Performance.

So, how can we build trust at work, particularly if we are in a leadership role?

  1. Communicate effectively

    Leaders earn trust when they are open about what they know about major change, for example, by keeping people well informed, and responding well to concerns.

    It also builds trust when leaders can keep sensitive matters confidential, unless they have consent to repeat them – such as matters relating to an underperforming colleague.

    Here leaders are walking a fine line between the need to be transparent as much as possible and the need to keep sensitive matters confidential. Perhaps the best that a leader can say about concerns raised about an underperforming colleague is that they are aware of those concerns and that action is being taken.

    Leaders burn trust if they are remote, keep information tightly guarded, repeat confidential information, or respond poorly to concerns when they are raised.

    Open, honest, two-way communication also builds trust and is typical of high-performing teams. But, as I often say to my children, such communication needs to be true, kind, helpful and well-timed!

  2. Act with integrity and competence

    Trust is also built by people who act with integrity - who do what they say and what is right, even if it comes at a cost.

    Leaders build trust when their behaviour matches their words. It is no good if they talk about being open to feedback if they are quite defensive themselves.

    Good leaders also build trust when they allocate resources fairly, follow a fair, transparent and reasonable process for filling positions, and declare a conflict of interest, removing themselves from decisions that involve close friends or family.

    Leaders also need to be acting in ways that inspire confidence and trust in their team members. Good leaders act with sound knowledge, expertise and judgment. But they also know their limits and are prepared to acknowledge mistakes when they have occurred.

  3. Relate to others in positive ways

    Trust is also built by consistently relating to others in positive ways. It becomes easier to trust people when we know they have good intentions towards us and can safely predict how they will behave.

    There are lots of ways that leaders build positive relationships. Examples include taking the time to get to know their colleagues, genuinely caring for people, connecting over food, making people laugh or feel valued, making decisions together when possible, or practical assistance with a challenge at work.

    Yes, there will still be challenges and misunderstandings, from time to time. But the positive interactions need to significantly outweigh the negative ones to encourage a relationship of trust.

  4. Model trust

    Social psychologists say that most human beings have a bias towards assuming negative intentions of others.

    Leaders can help to counter this bias by encouraging team members to assume the best of others when there are frustrations, rather than assuming that others are being slack, inconsiderate or disrespectful.

    Yes, sometimes we are right in assuming the worst of others. But most of the time, we are wrong and this negative assumption only damages trust.

    Leaders can also model trust in others by trusting the judgment of team members and appreciating there is likely to have been a good reason for a departure from an agreed understanding.

    Likewise, team members can demonstrate trust in their leaders by appreciating they are likely to be dealing with pressures and sensitive matters they cannot freely discuss.

Some of us may well be thinking about what others need to do to earn our trust and respect.  

But we also need to think about actions we can take. Ultimately, we can only control our own behaviour. There are actions we can take to build, model, or earn the trust of others.


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