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Trust in the workplace

Trust in groups is like water is for fish – you do not notice it until it has gone. It is built incrementally through the daily interactions of sharing, valuing and reciprocating vulnerability. As leaders and colleagues, the decisions we make around how we connect with, and relate to, others offer the opportunity to build (or diminish) the trust that surrounds us. How do we build trust in the workplace?

Trust between people in a group or team is directly linked to psychological safety and can be present or lacking between employees, leaders and people and even between the C-suite and the rest of the organisation. Paying attention to this means that we must also pay attention to organisational culture and paying attention to culture is paying attention to performance. Through leadership, and our ability to generate and protect trust, we determine the water we and our colleagues swim in.

The nuts and bolts of trust in the workplace 

The water and the fish analogy is a good place to start when speaking in organisational terms because it’s true, you don’t tend to notice trust when things are working well. But when trust is not there, because of our innate dependence on it and wanting to belong, we become super aware that it’s missing. In some cases where trust has eroded so much, you can begin to think there’s an ulterior motive going on. This is the extreme and not beneficial to a healthy, productive work environment.

Trust is not something that you can suddenly generate at the times when you need it. When the system is shocked in some way, telling your people to simply ‘trust us’ and expecting them to do so is unrealistic. Your people must already trust you before going into that situation for them to feel secure and safe enough for leadership decisions to be received in a way that the leaders want them to be.

Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, uses the analogy of a marble jar to help understand how trust is built and eroded. The analogy is also relevant to trust in the workplace. As people share their stories, marbles are added to their trust jar. The more stories they share and the deeper those stories are, the more marbles you can add to their jar. This is something that is done slowly and gradually over time as each marble that goes in the jar is the result of somebody sharing something with another person which has the potential to be used against them but is instead treated with respect.

Trust is hard to gain, create and grow – it takes time, but it’s very easy to get rid of. The one time someone does something that takes advantage of the vulnerability that the other had demonstrated, you don’t just take one marble out of the jar, you take out a handful. The contents of the jar go down easily but up slowly and it takes time and effort to rebuild. This is because of the human element that we invest in; we make ourselves dependent and reliant on relationships through being vulnerable. When this breaks down, it can really hurt.

How is vulnerability and intimacy relevant in the workplace?

A psychological safe space will encourage people to open up and be honest, for example admitting a mistake or explaining how you are unsure about something. It is about having the feeling that your team members and manager will have your back, acknowledging the vulnerability that you have shown and how you are to navigate through a challenge together. To be able to admit mistakes and not fear them is the building block of a trustworthy relationship.

The four fatal fears come into this – the fear of failure, being wrong, rejection and being emotionally uncomfortable. We don’t want to look incompetent and if we feel like we are able to do something without being judged, criticised or otherwise negatively impacted, our trust and confidence in our manager and organisation will be encouraged.

This is hugely linked to psychological safety. One of the benefits is that if you want people to be innovative, try new things and take risks, employees must know that they are not going to be punished if it goes wrong. Without innovation, how can an organisation be progressive? Without encouraging a psychologically safe space, employees tend to just stay safe, do the minimum, do what they need to do to get away and take no accountability if things go wrong. In this scenario, people will try to avoid mistakes rather than learn.

How can leaders encourage trust in the workplace?

If a leader wants to encourage other people to feel that it is okay to be vulnerable, they must role model and demonstrate it themselves. This takes courage. Leaders cannot control what people do. They can try but that is micromanaging and that rarely succeeds if you want people to innovate, adapt and respond intelligently.

A leader’s job is to create the conditions in which people can thrive by managing the environment in which they exist and by building connections. Trust is a fundamental part of tending to that environment. If a leader does not create conditions where trust in the workplace is encouraged, it is unlikely that their people will trust them or tell them what they really think for fear of judgement. As a result, leaders will not be able to do what needs to be done to be successful as they won’t have the correct insights to make informed decisions.

Also, leaders can help to reinforce trust by focusing on the functionality of the organisation. As important as it is, it’s not just about making the place nice and happy, you must achieve the metrics, targets and objectives set. A team that is performing well is much more likely to trust one another.

What tools or interventions would you recommend to an organisation struggling with trust?

There are constructive exercises around building connections, relationships and being able to understand the perspectives of the other people in your organisation. Taking the time to have the conversations which allow the understanding of those different perspectives, in a safe environment, builds trust.

Often, it’s getting out of the work and taking a step back that allows the sharing of perspectives to flourish and sometimes it can help to have an external partner hold that space. For example, coming to Roffey Park as an offsite and spending time together on perhaps non-work-related activities can help break down some of those initial barriers and the armour that people may have put up.

A good example of non-work-related trust activities is team building exercises – orienteering and scavenger hunts etcetera. But even just sitting around a campfire in your casual clothes allows people to see one another as people, rather than colleagues. Something as simple as this can help build that trust of ‘you are just another person like me, you are fraught with the same challenges and issues as everybody else.’

Some out-of-work situations don’t guarantee that this happens, so be careful about what exercises you choose to do. For example, you can have low-trust environments where everyone goes to the pub together, but people watch what they say. Situations like this can sometimes be quite cliquey and you might have isolated areas of trust between certain people but not as a whole.

Activities to build trust in the workplace

Work-based activities can help build trust too. A team away day can certainly help break down barriers, lubricate the process and lower the barrier of entry into work-related trust but there is more to it. For leaders, this can be as simple as making time for people. Leaders must have check-ins and demonstrate that they care, sharing their own appropriate vulnerability.

Tasking and encouraging your team to bring their whole self to work is a good start. This does not mean that you must turn up in your football kit, your pet dog or an apron ready to cook. Rather, it means to feel fully enabled to use all your skills in a way that is appropriate in that environment to do the job to the best of your ability. It is also about giving and receiving that emotional language because in doing so we give other people that insight into what’s going on underneath the surface for us and that is the foundation for trust.

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