How to build trust in the workplace and succeed

Trust in your colleagues is a great motivator. Here are 6 actionable strategies to build trust on your team.

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. The same can be said of not trusting your teammates at work. Trust has been shown to be critical to team success in numerous studies.

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” or “A team without trust really isn’t a team.”

But here’s the problem: Organizations are not great at fostering trust, with 63% of employees not trusting their direct boss. Trust in senior executives is even worse — in the United States, it’s around 38% of employees that fully trust the CEO and her/his team, and in Canada it’s about 25%. (Japan is the lowest of studied countries, with a dismal 18% of employees trusting the leadership team.)

If you view concepts like respect and civility as tied to trust, as many do, the research there isn’t much better. 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 operating seemingly devoid of trust. That’s both a chasm and an inefficiency.

If you could develop more trust on your team and in your organization, it would be akin to a “blue ocean” strategy — where you carve out a new area of differentiation — over your rivals, because statistically it doesn’t seem like they’re actively developing trust internally.

Before we get to the trust solutions, let’s look at how we got here: Why would trust be declining in employers?

5 common reasons for declining trust in employers

EY did a global study on trust in the workplace about two years ago. They surveyed almost ten thousand full-time workers in eight industrialized countries (including the U.S.). Here were the key findings on trust in the workplace:

In the little to no trust category (15%), the top five reasons for this gap in trust were:

This all makes sense, logically. The first two items are related to pay and career advancement. While we often discuss work in terms of purpose, the fact is many people in the world use work as a means to an end. In other words, purpose is great, but you can’t buy dinner with “purpose.” You need fair compensation. The cost of goods and services continues to rise while salaries often don’t; that’s called “The Productivity-Pay Gap.”

The spiraling manifestations of distrust in the workplace

Consider job-hopping for a moment This often happens because it’s easier to make 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 a already an executive with a bonus structure or vested interest in the company.

So, in this way, compensation is also tied to trust. If companies don’t compensate employees well, people tend to leave. Their remaining co-workers 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.

A lack of strong leadership at the top often leads to muddied priorities. Muddied priorities, in turn, can erode organizational trust. And when priorities are unclear, you have managers throughout a business defining almost every project as “urgent,” and that burns out employees. They also don’t trust their managers to help define their workload, and when everything is moving a mile a minute without clarity, it’s easy to distrust team members if they’re not carrying their own weight in the chaos. Without strong priority alignment, trust can dissipate fairly quickly.

“Not enough collaboration” is similar to the above discussions, as well, but it brings in other common workplace issues:

There are also many organizations out there where team members meet once or twice a week about a project, but then everyone goes to their cubicle or office and works 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).

At many businesses, the reasons for declining trust in the workplace shared in the EY survey — compensation practices, collaboration, senior leadership, and turnover — are going to be the big factors that fuel foundational problems with trust. We will address how to fix these issues, but first let’s briefly discuss the idea of “psychological safety.”

What is psychological safety?

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 this 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.

(Here’s a deep-dive on Project Aristotle, and here’s a paper by Amy Edmonson on psychological safety.)

In short, psychological safety is about feeling that you can contribute — the collaboration idea from the EY study — and not be shamed or ridiculed for asking an obvious question or making a mistake. A lot of the ability for a team to develop psychological safety resides with its manager. Managers must set the bar for what is and isn’t appropriate, and they are responsible for fostering a safe work environment.

The manager of a team must model psychological safety to establish a psychologically safe environment, but the entire team needs to participate.

For example, if someone makes a mistake and there’s even a team reaction of “Why did you do that?” fear may subconsciously take hold of team members and the entire team’s trust in each other will begin to fade.

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: Here’s some 2001 research from “oxytocin research icon” Paul Zak. He tied oxytocin boosts to “intentions of trust” being perceived. In sum, then:

    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 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.

  1. Answer team-building questions: Team-building questions can cover information about yourself, which helps to humanize you to one another. For example, “What was you 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.

Pro-tip: If you’re short on ideas, we created Icebreaker just for this purpose.

  1. 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.).

  2. 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 persons they are and not just the “customer success manager” or “DevOps Level 1” they may be when in the office.

  1. Prioritize your team’s work: Entire sections of bookstores have been written on how better to 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 priortized, effective, ultimately productive work. And the more of that you produce, the more trust a teammates will feel with each other.

  1. Compensate fairly: Money is important. How much you make, or have the ability to make, is a major aspect of your life in a first-world, capitalistic society.

You need to compensate employees fairly. If people believe their compensation is fair, they tend to work harder—and thus, the teams they are on work harder, and there is a greater sense of trust among team members. The issue here 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 who sets comp levels in your business.

The bottom line on building trust at work

When you see companies die off, the main factors are typically an outdated business model, poor investments in product, poor management of debt, or some type of scandal. The one factor that underscores all those potential negative events is an erosion of trust between 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, the line is razor-thin when it comes to trust. Trust cuts across both spheres; you wouldn’t date someone you don’t trust, and you don’t want to be in a foxhole at 11 o’clock at night on a deadline with someone you don’t trust.

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

And that starts with fairly compensating, finding ways to provide autonomy to teams and individuals, bolstering collaboration, and prioritizing work. If you can do these things, you’re well on your way to a psychologically-safe, trust-laden workplace.

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