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8 Essential Steps to Cultivate Trust in the Workplace

By November 10, 2023November 13th, 2023No Comments

Trust is where it all starts

You might be an ambitious, strategic, and brilliant leader, but if your people don’t trust you – or you don’t trust them – you’ll never reach your full potential, they won’t reach their full potential, and the team won’t reach its full potential

We’re in the era of quiet quitting and mouse jiggling, after all. And low trust directly correlates to sunken rates of employee retention, engagement, and motivation.

It gets worse – this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer shows that a third of people don’t trust their employers.

And, more troublingly, MIT found that most leaders overestimate their workforce’s trust level by almost 40%.

Clearly, there’s a disconnect between how leaders and their people perceive workplace trust – and that disconnect is wreaking havoc on the bottom line.

But if you want to increase trust in your workplace, then trust me to show you how to do it.

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Why It Is Important to Build Trust as a Leader

If you want to make a greater impact, bring out the best in others, and bring out the best in yourself, deepening trust with your people is vital.

As Harvard Business Review research shows, compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 29% more life satisfaction
  • And 40% less burnout

So, what is it exactly about trust that helps organizations build effective teams? It comes back to neurobiology. In the Moral Molecule, neuro-economist Paul J. Zak uncovered an intrinsic link between trust and workplace satisfaction.

According to his research, people’s brains release oxytocin – one of our happy hormones – when they, firstly, find their work meaningful and, secondly, feel trusted to think bigger, experiment, and stretch their capabilities.

When this happens, they come to work ready and eager to do a great job, and their companies thrive.

How to Build Trust in a Team

So, how do you move from low-trust to high-trust leadership? Here are 8 tips to build and maintain workplace trust:

1. Let Trust Be Lost, Not Earned

Starting a relationship without trust is like starting out on the wrong foot, which is why trust should be implicit from the get-go, rather than some commodity people have to earn. After all, nobody will trust you if you don’t trust them first.

That’s not to say that people won’t break your trust. To be honest, about 15% of the time (not a rigorous, science-backed figure), trust will be misplaced, and it can be a tough pill to swallow when your heart takes a hit.

But the benefits you reap from the other 85% are immense. Not to mention the personal satisfaction you gain from being in working relationships where you start with the assumption that trust is there, rather than doubting it.

One powerful way to boost your trust in the people around you is to reframe your relationships from ‘I-it’ to ‘I-thou’ relationships.

Coined by Martin Buber, in ‘I-it’ relationships, you see the other person as a cog in a machine. You need something from them. You’re detached and distrustful. You lose sight of the person behind the task.

In contrast, ‘I-thou’ relationships are inherently open, trustful, and empathetic. You realize that you’re doing your best, and the other person is probably trying hard too. You assume positive intent. You’re generous. You’re open-minded, open-handed, and open-hearted.

2. Understand What Actions Break Trust

While trust should be a given, you also need to know what actions break trust for you. This is essential to defining the parameters within which your people will operate.

For instance, I don’t mind people screwing up. Why? Because bouncing back from failure is crucial to learning and growing. But, it frustrates me when people hide screwing up from me. Similarly, I don’t mind if people get stuck, but it breaks my trust if they don’t communicate that they’re stuck.

To understand what behaviors build and break trust for you, I recommend meditating on the “good and bad date” questions from my latest book, How To Work With (Almost) Anyone:

  • What can you learn from a successful past working relationship?
  • What can you learn from a difficult past working relationship?

By reflecting on what worked and didn’t work, you’ll be better able to communicate your expectations with your team, which leads us to the next step.

3. Have the Keystone Conversation

Once you’ve explored what trust means to you, you’re ready for the Keystone Conversation – a discussion in which you and the other person learn more about each other’s working styles and preferences.

The Keystone Conversation deepens connection and trust by establishing three things:

  • Shared responsibility between you and the other person for the health of the relationship.
  • Permission to continue to talk about the relationship in the good and the bad times ahead.
  • A deeper understanding of the person across the table from you, bringing you closer to the truth of their full humanity.

The Keystone Conversation is unusual and radical, so it can feel a little awkward at first. But, don’t let this stop you from forging ahead. By being brave, vulnerable, and truthful, you humanize yourself as a leader and make yourself more relatable.

4. Commit to the Best Possible Working Relationship

Actions, as the saying goes, speak louder than words. Once you’ve had the Keystone Conversation, you need to commit to maintaining the health of your relationships.

To do this, I recommend focusing on building working relationships that are safe, vital, and repairable.

Too much jargon? Let me break it down:

  • Safe is about removing fear. Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, a champion for the idea of psychological safety, codified it as this: the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, or concerns.
  • Vital encapsulates Dan Pink’s trinity of motivation from his fantastic book Drive. People’s motivation comes from a sense of purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Vital means constructing a working relationship with the right combination of support and challenge. One where you each have the best chance to do work that matters, make your own choices, and learn and grow.
  • Repairable speaks to the reality that all relationships have some degree of fragility. Yes, there are difficult moments, but there’s also a commitment and capacity to fix the damage and carry on.

5. Don’t Rush to Give Advice

It’s not unusual for leaders to have some sort of rescuer complex. When someone comes to you with a question or a problem, you may feel like it’s your duty to rescue them by finding solutions yourself.

Now I know this may seem like the most efficient way to address a problem, but your good intentions often have a negative impact. They show your people you don’t trust them, and that they can’t trust themselves.

Think about it – you breed resentment among team members when you step in instead of trusting them to find solutions. At the same time, this prevents them from becoming more autonomous and needlessly adds more to your workload.

Luckily, there’s a simple fix to the vicious cycle of over-dependence and under-trust – becoming more coach-like. While coaching employees can sound a little woo-woo, if you’ve read The Coaching Habit, you’ll know it’s easy and straightforward to do in 10 minutes or less!

All it comes down to is slowing down the rush to give advice and staying curious a little longer when you engage with others. Instead of jumping in to fix things for your people, deepen trust in your relationships by asking thoughtful questions and allowing people to come up with their own answers.

6. Find Failure Fascinating

When you start empowering others to find their own solutions and stretch them beyond their comfort zones, mistakes are going to happen. But rather than letting mistakes break trust, you can cultivate psychological safety by helping your team bounce back from failure. 

After all, failure is part and parcel of innovation. Great leaders know that it’s not something to fear, but something to celebrate.

In the book The Art of Possibility, Boston Philharmonic Orchestra conductors Ben and Rosalind Zander instructed their students to say: “How fascinating!” as loud as they could and throw their hands up in the air whenever they made a mistake.

This approach instantly changed the whole feel around something going wrong. Instead of chastising their students for their errors, the Zanders were able to build trust by remodeling mistakes into learning opportunities.

A powerful way to do this in the workplace is by taking a page from the U.S. military’s “after-action review” process.

After every engagement, whether successful or unsuccessful, the commanders pull the team together and ask each other some simple questions in a judgment-free way. They say:

  • What happened?
  • What did we expect to happen?
  • What did we learn from this?
  • What do we need to do now?
  • What do we need to do next time?

Incorporating this discipline into your life is a really powerful way to foster trust after failure, helping you and your team find wisdom in the wound, and move forward stronger than before.

7. Commit to Repair

The thing about placing full trust in people is that it can be a bit of a heartbreaker. At some point, somewhere along the line, someone will let you down.

In the fabric of daily life, there are countless opportunities for small tears to occur.

Misunderstandings, hiccups, and moments of slight confusion – they’re all part of the package. Someone might even have a bad night’s sleep or be a bit hangry from skipping breakfast, and those factors can fray the edges of trust!

That’s where the willingness to repair comes into play. As Liane Davey discusses in her book, The Good Fight, when you make the effort to mend these tears, it not only fixes the immediate damage but also serves as an act of vulnerability and trust-building in itself.

It’s a sign that you care enough about the relationship to put in the work, to test it out, to acknowledge your own mistakes, and to call someone out when they’re not doing what they need to do.

8. Use the TERA Model

For people to trust you, they need to feel safe. And one of the best ways to make people feel safe is to enhance the employee experience through the TERA model.

TERA-what?

Let me break it down.

TERA stands for:

  • Tribe – “Are you with me, or are you against me?”
  • Expectation – “Do I know the future or don’t I?”
  • Rank – “Are you more important or less important than I am?”
  • Autonomy – “Do I get a say or don’t I?”

At an unconscious level, the brain uses the TERA criteria five times a second to scan the environment and answer the question, “Am I safe?”

The more you increase the TERA quotient of any experience, the safer the person will feel, and the more trusting and engaged they’ll be.

Actively managing the Tribe-iness of your relationships will help you to keep the TERA quotient as high as possible.

Effective ways to do this include increasing:

  • How curious you are (asking questions like “And what else?” after someone gives an answer).
  • Your own level of sharing and vulnerability (my rule of thumb is that you answer every question you ask of the other person, sharing the messy and hard, not just the shiny and good).
  • The extent to which you co-create the conversation with the other person (asking them what they’d like to ask about; checking if there’s anything that needs to be said that hasn’t yet.

Trust Requires the Best Possible Relationships

Better relationships are the rocket fuel of workplace trust.

So, if this article struck a chord with you, and you’re ready to supercharge your working relationships, check out my new book: How To Work With (Almost) Anyone.

Get your copy here!

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.