The case for building trust in the workplace


Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “He who does not trust enough will not be trusted”. As we approach the first anniversary of the pandemic, the most disruptive event in modern history, our trust fund (as I like to call it) is depleted. We are distrustful of our societal leaders, our own leaders, our team members and, to an extent each other.

Building trust provides an amazing catalyst to help us to come out of this terrible situation better than we came into it. To be that spark, we need to understand what has gone wrong and what we can do differently to build trust. And I believe the answer starts with each of us as individuals.


Lessons from life


For me, the construct of trust is very personal. It’s based on values nurtured from childhood. My parents taught me the importance of trust and lessons from my childhood informed my approach to leading people. I led from a basis of transparency and trust and that allowed me to build a strong connection where people felt empowered to bring all that was individual to them, to the team. I wasn’t so good at the “holding people accountable” element – but I’ll save that for another blog!


“Canada is facing a crisis in leadership” – Edelman


At a macro level, the recently published Edelman Trust Barometer provides a sobering perspective on our trust fund. The report tells us that only 39% of respondents trust their CEOs who are sandwiched somewhat sheepishly between Religious leaders (37%) and politicians (45%). Half of us believe that CEOs are purposely trying to mislead us through a combination of false news and exaggeration. Sounds like a season of Succession doesn’t it!

In this trust vacuum, our employer is still our mainstay of trust. We trust our employer (76%) more than we trust the government (59%) and media (54%), suggesting that our direct leader and the organization overall is doing a lot of good work to make-up for those pesky CEOs who we’re so wary of.

Trust in organizations is important. The Great Place to Work Institute holds it in such revere that it has named its survey tool, that identifies the best places to work, the Trust Index. I’ve talked before about the impact trust has on team performance as outlined in Lencioni’s Five Behaviours of a Cohesive Team model. In Infinite Game, Simon Sinek dedicates a whole chapter to “Trusting Teams”. He writes.


“Trust is a feeling. Just as it’s impossible for a leader to demand that we be happy or inspired, a leader cannot order us to trust them or each other. For the feeling of trust to develop, we have to feel safe expressing ourselves first.”


The cost of mistrust


A recent report from Lencioni’s team at The Table Group identifies that 79% of respondents don’t acknowledge their weaknesses to each other – a sure sign that there is a lack of, what he refers to, as vulnerability based trust.

The cost of mistrust is significant. In fact, the Lencioni report estimates the cost of ineffective teamwork to be 5% of GDP in the US alone – that’s a whopping $1 trillion dollars! In his article on mistrust, Shane Parrish cites research from Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam who, through his book Bowling Alone, identified that we are trusting each other less because of a decline in social capital that results in an increase in costs.

He suggests building social capital by adopting more “generalized reciprocity” – the behaviour that is developed when we are connected to each other and where there is a strong sense of community. Putnam defines it as “I’ll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road”.

Taking the quote quite literally, it reminds me of my neighbour who recently was kind enough to use his snow blower to clear the walkways round my house. He’ll be sure to get something in return down the road.

Without this reciprocity, we increase the transaction costs. For example, the cost of drawing up a contract with my neighbour before he fires up his snowblower in case he slips on my property. It’s this sort of mistrust that results in leaders micro-managing their people and installing remote monitoring software.


The impact of remote work


A recent report in HBR argues that the WFH experiences of the last year are contributing to the erosion of trust that we have in each other. To build trust they remind us that we need to identify the right signals about what people are doing (the actions), why they are doing it (their motivations) and whether they’ll continue to do it (their reliability). It can be challenging to get all this information in our virtual world where it’s tricky to interpret body language and clarify comments either during or after a meeting. This can result in misunderstanding, miscommunication and, yes you’ve guessed it, mistrust.


Building more trust


We know remote work is here to stay in one form or another, so now is the time to identify sustainable approaches that build trust. Here are a few ideas.


Build a community

The research from Putnam reminds us of the value of community to building trust. I’ve talked before about the impact of community on trust and the impact of the pandemic on community so being conscious of how you build community is a critical step.


Build more reciprocal trust

As identified by Putnam, this will help create the fly wheel of trust by building more social capital, that leads to more trust, that results in more social capital. You get the point! A starting point is to portray more trust on others. If that seems hard to do ask yourself why? Maybe the person has done something previously that makes you question their motivations? Does that mean they will do it again? Maybe, but you’ll never know if you don’t speak to them or consider setting clearer expectations.


Build a trust staircase

The phrase used in the HBR article resonated with me. Start with small steps and repeat them. Be deliberate in signaling and that will help you build progress. This trust staircase should also be built at an organizational level through a similar set of enterprise wide, well thought through actions that should be broadcasted far and wide.


Build a coaching approach

As coaches we love to ask questions. Great open questions. And then we listen. This approach helps to build understanding of the other person and helps build knowledge. Questions can also help you show vulnerability – particularly if you’re question is asking for help.


The speed of trust


I’ll end with a quote from the grandfather of trust – Stephen M.R. Covey who wrote in his book The Speed of Trust.


“I know it is possible not only to restore trust but to actually enhance it. The difficult things that we go through with the important people in our lives can become fertile ground for the growth of enduring trust – trust that is actually stronger because it’s been tested and proved through challenge.”


This is the case for building trust and now is the time to take your first step on the trust staircase.


Mark Edgar

Mark Edgar – a recovering CHRO and Founder of Goat Rodeo Project, a consulting firm designed to help you predict and avoid train wrecks. For the avoidance of doubt, we’re in a goat rodeo. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter for more HR-related ramblings. It would be great to catch-up.