Building Trust In The Workplace

When we talk to clients about building trust in the workplace, we usually get one of two responses. Around half the time, people say “I trust people when they prove they can be trusted.”

Most of the others just give The Enlightened Response: “I trust people until they let me down.” Either way, they’re being reactive. Ultimately, what they’re saying is that whether I trust you or not depends on your behaviour.

This is clearly a reasonable position. The problem, though, is that in an organisational setting it creates a powerful downward spiral. This can be set out as the following scenario:

  • I trust you until you let me down
  • I tell Bill that you let me down
  • Now Bill doesn’t trust you
  • You notice that Bill is avoiding you, so…
  • you start watching him, and warn Jane…
  • who warns me that Bill’s up to something…

Before you know it, no-one trusts anyone any more, and they can’t even remember why.

Building Trust In The Workplace

What’s the issue? Nobody is taking responsibility for maintaining and building trust. If we trust each other, that’s fine. But the moment you let me down, or (more likely) the moment I think that you let me down, I have a choice. I can either put you on my list of ‘people who can’t be trusted’, or I can take responsibility and talk to you about it.

In practice, that’s the last thing people want to do! It takes extraordinary courage to tell another person that something they’ve done has left you questioning whether you can trust them or not. There are all sorts of valuable tips and techniques for communicating that kind of difficult message effectively; but however skilled a communicator you are, it isn’t a comfortable thing to tackle.

For an organisation to build a culture based on trust, each person has to accept that if “I” don’t trust you, that’s my problem. You may or may not be trustworthy; but I have to be willing to deal with the situation.

There may be a misunderstanding, or a miscommunication; there may be personal or professional issues in the background that I know nothing about. You may even be genuinely untrustworthy! But the only way to build a culture of trust is for each individual to be persuaded to take responsibility for creating that culture, brick by brick.

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