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6 actionable strategies to build trust on your team

Trust in your colleagues is a key motivator. Here's how to build trust in the workplace and succeed

October 3, 2019
10 minutes read

We probably don't need to oversell the importance of trust. It's the foundation of most — if not all — relationships, personal and professional.

If you don’t trust another person, there’s only so much space for that relationship to grow. Numerous studies have shown that trust is critical to team success.

In this article, we will dive deeper into why trust is so essential in the workplace, explore some of the common reasons (backed by research) behind the low rates of trust in today’s organizations, and identify six concrete strategies for building trust on your team. Read on to learn about how you and your team can overcome barriers to mutual trust and, ultimately, work together to achieve your potential.

The importance of trust in the workplace

In the workplace, if trust is low, it impacts your relationships with your teammates and often means that projects aren't completed properly or even at all. Headlines have blared for years:

  • “Your team will succeed only if they trust each other.”
  • “A team without trust really isn't a team.”

But here's the problem: Organizations are not great at fostering trust. In fact, according to 2017 research on global trust in CEOs (summarized here), only 38% of employees in the United States fully trust their CEO and her/his team. In Canada, this percentage is closer to 25%. Rates of trust in the workplace are lowest of all in Japan, where only 18% of employees trust their leadership team.

Studies of perceived respect and civility in the workplace (which many view as closely related to trust) have shown similarly concerning results. Specifically, McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University Professor Christine Porath states:

My research highlights how small civil and uncivil behaviors spread, for better and worse. In one experiment, we found that those simply around incivility are more likely to have dysfunctional and aggressive thoughts, although they may be unaware of the connection. Research has shown that people who are typically surrounded by jerks learn intuitively to act selfishly, even when cooperating would pay off. Our environment rubs off on us, and if our environment is toxic, we can expect to stay somewhat sick and to pass it on to others.

At this point, here's what we know: Trust is inherently important to the functioning of a team, but many organizations are seemingly operating with a fundamental lack of trust. What does this mean for your team?

Since, statistically, so few organizations are actively developing trust internally, building a culture of trust on your team and in your organization could not only improve your team's morale but also function as a "blue ocean" strategy, allowing you to carve out a new area of differentiation over your competitors.

Before we dive into specific solutions for building trust in your organization, let's look at how we got here: Why would trust in employers be declining?

What's behind declining levels of trust in the workplace?

A few years ago, EY did a global study on trust in the workplace. They surveyed almost 10,000 full-time workers in eight industrialized countries (including the U.S.). Here were the key findings on trust in the workplace:

  • About 46% of those surveyed had a “great deal of trust” in their employers
  • 15% said they had “very little or no trust at all”
  • 39% were in the middle with “some trust”

In the little to no trust category (15%), the top five reasons for this gap in trust were: compensation is not fair, there are not equal opportunities for pay and promotion, lack of strong senior leadership, too much employee turnover, and not enough collaboration.

Let's take a deeper dive:

Unfair compensation and career advancement challenges

While we often discuss work in terms of purpose, the fact is that many people in the world (understandably) rely on work as a means to an end. While purpose can help us feel fulfilled in our work, it cannot be exchanged for basic human needs. To cover those bases, employees must have fair compensation. Unfortunately, the cost of goods and services continues to rise while wages and salaries often don’t — this is called “The Productivity-Pay Gap."

Let's consider job-hopping for a moment. This often happens because it's easier to make more money (a few percentage points of increase) if you change jobs, whereas larger salary increases are less common when you stay at an organization for a long time. The exception here is if you're already an executive with a bonus structure or vested interest in the company.

So, in this way, compensation is also tied to trust — and, of course, employee engagement. If companies don't compensate employees well, people tend to leave. The co-workers they left behind begin to distrust the company for how they pay, are saddened by their co-workers leaving, and now have more work on their plate while management tries to backfill another position.

On multiple levels, workplace trust can erode as a result of poor compensation models.

Issues with senior leadership

Beyond compensation concerns, a lack of strong leadership at the top can lead to muddied priorities, which, in turn, can erode organizational trust. When priorities are unclear, you have managers throughout a company defining almost every project as “urgent,” which burns out employees. In turn, employees don't trust their managers to help in reasonably defining their workload, and when everything is moving a mile a minute without clarity, it's easy to distrust team members who aren't carrying their own weight amidst the chaos. Without strong priority alignment, trust on teams rapidly declines.

Lack of collaboration

The “not enough collaboration” datapoint from the EY study is closely related to the cycle of burnout and distrust described above. There are so many organizations out there where team members meet once or twice a week about a project and spend the rest of their time in their respective cubicles or office and work on their part. And as those different components of a project are completed in isolation, the lack of collaboration harms the overall end product or KPI (key performance indicator). Some of the ways a lack of collaboration can manifest itself in the workplace are:

  • Employees, especially remote employees, not knowing where to find things they need for work
  • Other employees having those crucial bits of information in their email or G-Suite
  • Team members that don't pull their weight on big projects

Overall, at many companies, compensation practices, a lack of collaboration, senior leadership challenges, and turnover are the key factors that fuel foundational problems with trust. Next, we'll cover how to guard against these issues on your team.

6 strategies to build trust in the workplace

So, how does a manager or leader begin to build trust at work? Here six approaches to consider:

1. Give employees more autonomy

Paul Zak's 2001 research tied oxytocin boosts to “intentions of trust” being perceived. In summary:

Zak’s research team showed that all you need to do to get someone’s oxytocin to go up is “give someone a sign of trust.” Trusting other people means you’re there for them, but that can only happen if everyone is consistently on the same page.

Zak has also noted:

The best precursor to communication is to give people autonomy over their work. It sounds counterintuitive, but it shows employees that their managers trust them, and this sign of trust in the workplace also helps to keep people happy at work. That’s key to retaining your employees.

What we've learned here is that the science behind retention involves increasing autonomy over one's work. That makes sense; very few of us actively want to be micromanaged. On a team, this is a bit more nuanced. You should give the overall team autonomy over what they're doing, how they will communicate, how often they will check-in, etc. Each team member can have autonomy over their section of work, but you need to ensure that team members are not working in individual silos. They need to be consistently checking in with one another on the team's shared goals and objectives.

2. Answer team-building questions

Team-building questions can cover information about yourself, which helps to humanize you to one another. For example, “What was your favorite class in high school?” Team questions can also focus on how you work together, which helps start conversations about how you work. For example, “How do you prefer to communicate?” Answering a question takes just a few minutes and can even be done asynchronously.

Get the free book of Team Questions

Sixty team-building questions to help you foster alignment and build trust.

3. Hold check-in rounds during meetings

During recurring meetings or a morning standup meeting, reserve the first 3-5 minutes to check in with team members and see how everyone is doing. It's so simple and yet makes a significant impact. Find out how people are doing emotionally or what they're thinking about their work and the day they're having. (Also, consider a team check-out at the end of meetings, where you'll learn how moods have changed, what tensions have been eased, etc.)

Note: checking in with teammates to learn how they are doing — not just what they are working on — is an important part of building psychological safety in the workplace. We’ve discussed psychological safety, how to establish it, and how to measure it here before.

But there’s a wealth of information out there that warrants reading, including an article from UVA on conflict resolution, which notes: "In 2012, Google launched 'Project Aristotle,' studying hundreds of Google teams to determine what factors made some thrive while others faltered. One common denominator among high-performing teams was what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson terms 'psychological safety' — confidence that team members can speak up or even make mistakes and still receive support from the team."

To learn more, explore this deep-dive on Project Aristotle and this paper by Amy Edmonson on psychological safety.


4. Create opportunities for social interaction

When a team is all too focused on work and nothing else it can get tedious. Work is often political and fraught depending on the different stakeholders involved. We want to believe work is pure passion, but that’s unfortunately not always the case.

If you only know someone in the context of KPIs and deadlines, you don't really know that person. The best teams and team managers create opportunities to connect outside of work. This can be a run to get a smoothie, a happy hour, a dinner, or a company-sponsored team-building activity. But whatever you do you need to let your team members see each other for the whole people they are and not just the “customer success manager” or “DevOps Level 1” they may be when in the office.

5. Prioritize your team’s work

Entire sections of bookstores have been written on how to better prioritize work, and we’ve developed tools around objectives and meetings for that very purpose. We can't solve every prioritization issue you may have in a blog post. We can tell you, though, that many don't get this right.

Only 8% of leaders can align strategy with execution, which is the essence of priority work getting done. We also know, from decades of research, that the surest path to prioritization is having simple, easy check-ins with a team around their core objectives, and making sure that all elements necessary for great work to be done are residing in a simple-to-find, easy-to-use place. It gets trickier with remote employees, but if you have regular updates and the work is locatable, you are on your way to prioritized, effective, ultimately productive work. And the more of that you produce, the more trust teammates will feel with each other.

6. Compensate fairly

Organizations need to compensate employees fairly because, simply put, money is important. How much you make, or have the ability to make, can significantly impact your day-to-day life in an industrialized, capitalist society.

Fair compensation can have additional benefits not only for employees but also for the organizations where they work. If people believe their compensation is fair, they tend to work harder — and thus, the teams they are on work harder, which helps to foster a greater sense of trust among team member.

An issue to keep in mind is that oftentimes, especially as a company gets bigger, compensation is not driven by the individual managers — it’s driven by a compensation expert or someone within HR or finance. What an individual manager can do is advocate for their employees. That means do research into what competitors pay, what local companies pay for certain positions, and what the cost of living for your employees looks like (average rent for most urban areas can be found on sites like Payscale). When employees excel in a given role for 1-2 years, design a mini-case study on their compensation needs and get an audience with the person or team that sets comp levels in your business.

The bottom line of building trust in the workplace

A variety of factors can challenge an organization’s long-term success, including an outdated business model, poor investments in product, poor management of debt, and — in some cases — some type of scandal. The one factor that underscores all those potential negative events is an erosion of trust among the people working together on the core business.

Trust is the essence of all human relationships, and while we sometimes draw a thick line between what is work and what is personal, when it comes to maintaining trust on a team, the line between how we work together and how we connect as people is razor-thin.

If your teams don’t trust each other, you won’t succeed as an organization.

And building trust starts with fairly compensating employees, finding ways to provide autonomy to teams and individuals, creating a prioritization system for work, and bolstering collaboration. If you can do these things, you're well on your way to creating a psychologically safe workplace where all team members trust one another and feel empowered to do their best work together.

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