Trust is an essential part of any successful relationship. We spend a lot of time thinking about building, maintaining, and rebuilding trust in our personal relationships, but we can be less confident when it comes to our working relationships.
Trust is just as important at work as any other part of our lives. It’s probably the most critical part of our corporate culture. At the most basic level, high levels of trust lead to better performance.
Companies described as “trust leaders” were 2.5 times more likely to have high revenues. Colleagues need to trust each other, management and team leads need to trust their staff, and employees need to trust their leadership teams.
Trust is intimately tied to engagement. 96% of employees who describe themselves as engaged at work reported trusting the people who ran their company. For those who were disengaged, the figure was just 46%.
Improved trust leads to better decision-making. An employee who is trusted can make decisions quickly and efficiently without needing additional authorisations or permissions. This also leaves them feeling empowered, which is great for engagement.
Improved trust can also dramatically decrease stress amongst employees. High-trust teams are 74% less stressed than those with lower levels of trust. In turn, this reduces burnout and ultimately lowers costly employee turnover.
And trust is an essential prerequisite for psychological safety. Psychological safety at work is the ability to go through your day without fear of unjust criticisms, personal attacks, or humiliation.
Staff who feel psychologically safe can take appropriate risks, innovate, try out new ideas, and speak up when they notice something wrong or areas for improvement.
If our organisations are going to thrive, our employees need to thrive along with us. Trust is essential to that process. Unfortunately, we are also entering a time when trust in the workplace is under new pressure.
The unique challenge of hybrid working
Hybrid working, which combines in-office work and working from home, carries huge potential benefits for organisations and employees. But, it can also create a strain on workplace trust.
As employers ask staff to come back into the office, employees are concerned that they’ll lose the benefits of remote work they’ve gotten used to. Organisations must demonstrate that their employees can trust them to prioritise their staff’s well-being and remain flexible.
In many ways, it was easier to maintain a trusting relationship when everyone was working remotely. Everyone was on a level playing field. Team members and senior leadership were all trying to make sense of the new situation and working together to stay afloat.
Hybrid working has often changed this dynamic, creating a new sense of insecurity. Staff in the office may wonder whether colleagues at home are pulling their weight. Those working at home may wonder whether they’re missing out on opportunities.
This also creates a headache for managers. The rules and expectations of hybrid working are still being negotiated, inevitably creating anxiety and insecurity.
Employers with high levels of trust are better placed to weather this storm, but upheaval presents an opportunity to build trust for all employers. Turbulent times allow us to clearly demonstrate that we can be trusted.
Now is the time to create a culture of trust within your organisation. Here’s how.
How to rebuild trust at work right now
We’ve all heard that trust takes years to build, seconds to lose, and forever to rebuild. Thankfully for those of us living (and working) in an imperfect world, this is mostly a myth. We need to build deep, genuine trust, which is hard to lose.
Give trust to earn trust
Trust isn’t something we can (or should) talk our way into, and it shouldn’t be one-sided. If we want our employees to trust us, we must give them our trust first.
This means we need to trust our employees to make their own decisions and manage their time and workflow. Obviously, this will look different for different employees and different sectors. However, the principle remains that managers must start by showing trust.
Once employees feel trusted, we can ask them to trust us in return.
For example, team members may be reluctant to disclose aspects of their personal lives that impact their needs regarding hybrid working. Many of us have read articles about staff who kept entire pregnancies secret while working remotely.
This might be an extreme example, but it highlights the consequences of working in a culture of distrust. Employers who share their struggles with remote or hybrid working make it easier for their employees to talk about their personal situations.
Spend time together
It’s far easier to trust someone we know well. When employees don’t regularly spend time together, it can be difficult for those informal, personal relationships to develop. As leaders and managers, it’s our role to create opportunities for this kind of team development.
We’re not talking about the kinds of “team-building” we might have seen in the past. Creating space for meaningful conversations and time for colleagues to share their triumphs and their challenges goes far beyond a paintballing trip or raft-building.
In fact, encouraging team relationships to develop requires trust on both sides.
Employees need to feel confident that conversations with their co-workers that are not strictly work-related won’t be interpreted as ‘time wasting’. This was natural in the office but may require interventions for remote workers.
Employers need to trust that these relationships are important and that their team members can manage their time effectively without stigmatising chit-chat.
This can be especially important for people who have only recently joined the company or don’t have lots of experience working in an office, like remote graduate trainees.
Recognise that mistakes are essential for growth
How we treat mistakes is one of the key ways to create a culture of psychological safety. Mistakes are inevitable. We can’t control that. We can, however, control how we respond to them.
Again, trust isn’t built through our words. We need to demonstrate that we won’t punish staff for genuine mistakes. Recognise that staff may still feel anxious about admitting mistakes, and try to build a culture where this is acknowledged and respected.
When a team member informs you of their mistake, thank them for their honesty… and mean it. Ask questions focused on understanding the situation, and be collaborative in finding ways to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
Use your own errors in the learning process as well. Be honest about times you have made mistakes, and ask for suggestions about how to prevent those mistakes in the future.
What to do when trust is lost or broken
Not every ‘mistake’ is a genuine error. We need to acknowledge that not everyone will deserve the trust we offer. Knowing how to address breaches of trust allows the rest of our team members to feel confident that they are not being taken advantage of.
Clear communication is always essential, especially when there is a potential breach of trust. This prevents the ‘miscommunication’ defence.
Have a plan before any potential violation to help you deal with it calmly and consistently. Remember that this plan should apply if you breach an employee’s trust and if they are the transgressor.
There are four stages of dealing with a breach of trust.
- Acknowledge the violation. Without this step, it’s not possible to repair the relationship.
- Determine the cause. Avoid character-based explanations, like “He’s just lazy”. There’s almost always something more going on.
- Be honest about the consequences. Try to focus on the impact on team members and coworkers rather than on the implications for the business. If possible, allow affected parties to speak for themselves.
- Accept responsibility and make amends where possible. Promises made at this point are critical. Failure to make amends as promised can be a more significant breach of trust than the initial action.
Learn more about building trust
Building trust, especially with marginalised groups, often requires making progress with diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. Creating an inclusive culture requires you to understand all aspects of DEI. You can learn more by reading our deep dive into the difference between diversity, equity, and inclusion, or our blogs about creating inclusive job adverts and how to reduce bias in your interviews.