Why do people stop trusting in one another? And what happens to a team when trust disappears? To answer these questions, let’s start with a fable.
About a year ago, Abigail began her first day on a new job. She was a software engineer, new to the workforce, and eager to make a good impression on her colleagues. At the end of the day, she noticed a fine, jagged line on the floor of the office, stretching the length of the building. She examined it, puzzled. She was pretty sure she hadn’t noticed it earlier, and almost as sure that it hadn’t been there when she’d arrived. For a moment she considered asking someone about it, but she didn’t feel comfortable inquiring about structural integrity on her first day.
Truth be told, she wasn’t the only employee who noticed the jagged line, and it had just appeared that day. But no one else had brought it up.
The next morning, the line had grown to an unmistakable crack. Javier, another software engineer, saw it straight away and thought about mentioning it to his supervisor, but the last time Javier spoke up about a problem, his supervisor had scolded him for not also presenting a solution. He had no solution, so he said nothing.
Dipendu thought he had an easy fix for the ugly crack, but he too was hesitant to speak up. The last time one of his designs hadn’t worked out as planned, the executive team was livid, and his manager threatened to demote him if his work ever failed again. Lupita, a senior designer, also had a solid idea for repairing the crack, but she’d seen too many of her good ideas stolen by others in the company, who received the credit for her ingenuity. Both Dipendu and Lupita kept quiet.
As the days passed, the crack expanded several inches. Everyone stepped over it as nonchalantly as they could so as not to acknowledge its existence. After a few weeks, the rift was several feet wide, and HR quietly updated job descriptions to say that the physical requirements of every job might entail some jumping.
Finally, after office supplies, a laptop, and Fred got lost in the rift, management decided to acknowledge the issue. But its message was inconsistent. In some instances, management seemed to take the gap seriously and promised it prompt attention. At other times, management seemed less committal. Only after an OSHA inspector showed up on an anonymous tip and summarily disappeared into the rift did company leadership clarify their position. Whatever the cause of the still-growing crack, employees were at fault for not speaking up sooner, and they’d just have to live with the consequences.
The consequences, however, were not sustainable. Valuable team members and intellectual property got lost in the abyss, electrical wires and phone lines got disconnected, and team meetings involved a lot of shouting over the gap. Soon everyone only communicated if they absolutely needed to, and oftentimes not even then.
What happened to this company may sound farfetched, but the rift is real. While you probably won’t find gaping holes in workplace floors, you will find trust destroyed by broken promises, lies, spin, retaliation, and inconsistency. And when trust is lost, relationships and teams break apart. In the workplace, people keep their distance from others, withholding information, refraining from identifying problems, and erecting barriers to protect themselves. In short, they stop working together.
Benefits of Trust
The whole point of forming a team is to facilitate cooperation. Trust is the foundation of that cooperation. With trust, teams increase their productivity, improve their ability to communicate and collaborate effectively, act more creatively, delegate work more easily, and achieve greater financial success. Trust enables teams to accomplish what they’re designed to accomplish. Trust creates a sure footing for success. But without trust, cooperation cracks, shatters, and dies. People can’t act as a team.
Trusting your employees and gaining their trust isn’t easy. As Wendy Dailey says, it takes time and effort. It’s work.
But trust is achievable. And worth it. We human beings are social animals, after all. It’s normal for us to trust one another. All of our social institutions require it. That’s one reason violations of trust feel so wrong and hurt so much. They cause rifts in friendships, romantic partnerships, families, neighborhoods, churches, teams, and other organizations. And yet those rifts are not the norm. They’re not what we typically expect. In the workplace, we expect to be able to trust our teammates, at least as far as work is concerned. So how do we get there? Let’s examine a few practical ways to build trust at work.
Learn What Trustworthiness Means to Your Employees
Laurie Ruettimann, author of Betting on You and host of the Punk Rock HR podcast, advises organizations “to learn more about how their employees define, value and evaluate trustworthiness — and act on it.” What establishes and strengthens trust with one employee may be different than what builds trust with another. For one thing, every employee has their own reasons for being an employee of their organization and expectations for what that relationship entails. For another, everyone has their own experience with building and losing trust. All else being equal, gaining the trust of someone who’s had their trust in others betrayed will be more difficult than gaining the trust of someone who’s not experienced such devastating betrayals. It’s vital to understand these differences.
Build Relationships on Authenticity, Logic, and Empathy
Executive coach Sarah Noll Wilson offers similar guidance. There is “a complexity to trust because what everyone values and what they need is going to be different based on every situation,” she writes. Her team recommends a framework they call the 'Trust Triangle.' We build high-trust relationships at work by being authentic about our values and impact, logical in how we’ve come to our conclusions, and empathetic in all our interactions.
Give Employees Your Time and Attention
Consider this simple advice from HR author and speaker Steve Browne: show “a little respect.” Respect brings people together. It empowers people to trust. We show people respect in the workplace by “acknowledging that their efforts make an impact and meaningful difference to the success of the company.” For Browne, we engage people with respect by giving them two things: “our time and attention.”
Acknowledge People’s Emotions
Researchers Alisa Yu, Julian Zlatev, and Justin Berg arrived at much the same place. Writing in Harvard Business Review, they explain that the best way to build trust at work is to acknowledge other people’s emotions. Acknowledging another’s emotions communicates that you “care enough to invest in that relationship.” Interestingly, the authors found that “acknowledging negative emotions boosts trust more than acknowledging positive emotions.” Why? Because most people “see acknowledging negative emotions as being more costly in terms of time, attention, and effort.” Acknowledging emotions can backfire, however, if “your coworkers believe your actions are motivated by selfish reasons.”
Act with Transparency, Clarity, and Consistency
We trust others when we believe that they are worthy of that trust — when we believe that they are honest, good, reliable, faithful, compassionate, and fair. How do we inspire others to believe that we are trustworthy? By keeping our promises. By being transparent about our decisions, clear about our expectations, and consistent in our practices.
Believe in Your People
Trust can’t go just one way. Rifts in the workplace will form if trust isn’t reciprocal. That means that we also have to show employees that we trust them. This can be challenging because we’re often inclined, and not unreasonably, to perceive employees as costs, risks, and liabilities. And yes, they certainly can be, but they’re also any company’s greatest asset. If we treat employees only as a danger, we tell them loud and clear that we don’t trust them.
The alternative? Find strength in vulnerability. Acknowledge the rights of your employees and your responsibilities to them (the employee handbook is a convenient place to do this, but your overall attitude matters too). Invest in their growth and success. Celebrate their wins. Give them reasonable opportunities to mend mistakes and make up for failures. In sum, treat employees like you trust them to do good work. Will some betray that trust? Yes. But that’s on them. Believe in them, and you’ll inspire trust. Assume betrayal, and you’ll get something else.
Trust enables people to work together. Pour everything you can into that foundation. You’ll build stronger and more productive relationships with your employees, notice and mend cracks more quickly, enhance the capabilities of your team, and achieve greater success.