Effective Communication

How to Build Trust at Work


If you’ve ever been on a corporate retreat, you’ve probably done that exercise where you fall backward and your colleagues catch you.

You probably didn’t feel sure, not absolutely sure, that they would. And if it was someone in the C-suite catching you, you might have been even less certain.

Many of us don’t trust our employers. More than half of the workers recently surveyed by the American Psychological Association said they feel their employer isn’t open and upfront, a third feels their companies aren’t always honest and truthful, and a quarter don’t trust their employer at all.

That’s a serious problem. Lack of trust impacts how well teams and companies perform and innovate. It is a big reason why the majority of Americans say they’re not engaged with their jobs. Companies are spending plenty on boosting engagement, innovation, employee retention and the like, but “that’s treating the symptoms and not the cause,” says Nan Russell, a workplace consultant and the author of Trust Inc. “If you don’t trust a culture, you will disconnect. You won’t share your ideas. People need to know they are getting complete information if they are to be engaged.”

Some of the blame for our suspicious workplaces goes to the recession, which made even those employees who thought they had secure jobs feel more vulnerable. Corporate scandals and increasing income inequality don’t help.

But trust is primarily about relationships, and a lack of trust on a team often begins with a manager’s beliefs. “If someone is inherently untrusting, he will create policies and procedures designed for the 5 percent of people who aren’t trustworthy rather than the 95 percent who are,” says Russell. Those bosses play favorites, micromanage, lash out, and change their minds without clear explanations. In those environments, employees will hunker down in order to survive. And move on as soon as they find a new opportunity.

Can This Culture Be Saved?

Whether trust can be built–or rebuilt–on a team depends in part on why it is broken. If someone has lied or acted with the deliberate intent of deceiving, the odds of rebuilding trust are “really nil,” says Russell.

If people have grown fearful or suspicious over time, or because of the larger corporate culture, it is possible to change the dynamic in your department or on your team. But here’s the tricky part: you can’t wait for someone else to act or apologize. If you want to build a trusting culture, you have to become trusting. As Lao Tzu put it, “He who does not trust enough, will not be trusted.”

Doing so is a stumbling block for most people. “There is a risk in doing so, but you do have to give a little to start to change the dynamic,” says Russell.

5 Steps to Build Trust at Work

  1. Own your mistakes. If you had a part in breaking down trust with your manager or team, take responsibility for it. Everyone makes mistakes. But to create trust, you need to be self-aware enough to take responsibility for your actions and accept that others make mistakes as well.
  2. Take action. Begin to give people the opportunity to demonstrate their trustworthiness. Starting small is fine. “It could be as simple as giving someone a project they haven’t worked on before or asking them to write a proposal about an idea,” says Russell.
  3. Keep your word. Behavioral integrity—keeping your words and actions aligned—is crucial to building trust. Follow through on what you’ve promised. If you do run into a problem, speak up early. It may be difficult to admit you need help or made a mistake, but it is a better choice than covering up or failing to deliver.
  4. Elevate communication. Be aware of how you communicate. It requires not only being clear, but “learning to be authentic and vulnerable.”
  5. Give it time. “Trust isn’t something you can turn off or on like a light switch,” says Russell. “We tend to be impatient, but trust is built incrementally over time.”

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.