How to Strengthen Trust in Work Relationships

“I came, I saw, I trusted.”

Unfortunately, in grown-up relationships, this is seldom the case. We no longer have the ability to display unconditional trust - which is a good thing of course. On the other hand this means we need to practice conscious effort to build trust with people around us.

Global research shows (Edelman Trust Barometer, 2018) that trust is especially low where we spend the majority of our waking hours: in the workplace.

In Asia, trust levels are comparatively high - the country of Singapore is an exception though: Compared to Indonesia (90%) and India (86%), only 73% of Singaporeans trust their employers.

Why is Trust Important for Work Relationships?

When trust is lacking in work relationships, people don’t confide and share information easily, they don’t feel able to step out of their comfort zone to take risks and they won’t feel comfortable to speak up and voice problems.

When we do trust someone, we think of them as being reliable. We feel safe around them, both physically and emotionally, which gives us the peace of mind to be ourselves. At work, where we’re expected to take calculated risks and share confidential information, trust is a crucial element in the relationships we have.

As a leader, our ability to inspire and motivate employees is based on trust. When people trust us, they have confidence in the decisions we make. Even in uncertain and difficult times people are able to act if they have trust in their leadership.

Further research on importance of trust in organisations shows that trust has an impact on

  • the relationships between the perceived support of leaders and turnover intentions
  • the commitment rate to the organisation
  • job satisfaction
  • and the distribution of justice and information sharing

The 3 Levels of Trust

1. Structural Level

At this level, people say “I trust the company”. Structural trust stems from formal systems that enforce behaviours.

2. Expert Level

This is where people say, “I trust your expertise”. Expert trust exists when there is confidence in the person’s competency.

3. Personal Level

At this level people say “I trust you”. Personal trust stems from the perception of a person’s character. It is typically shaped from first-hand interactions with them.

Trust relationships at work are effected by all three levels of trust. Let’s take the relationship between an Rachel and her employee Michael as an example:

The relationship between the two is affected by the level of trust they both put into the organisation: If Rachel doesn’t believe she’s going to be paid at the end of the month, she probably won’t be too happy about putting in some extra hours to coach Michael for his project.

As for the expert level of trust, Michael wouldn’t ask for Rachel’s advice if he didn’t trust her judgement and competency.

At the personal level, trust is most sensitive and can be broken very easily. An uncovered lie, a broken promise or inconsistency in words and corresponding actions can cause mistrust between two people. If Michael doesn’t deliver his work as promised, the next time he promises something, Rachel is going to have her doubts about it.

To effectively collaborate, the relationships we have at work must be built on mutual trust. Here’s what we can we personally do, to be trustworthy and gain another person’s trust:

How to Build Trust in Work Relationships

1. Clarity

People trust the clear and mistrust the ambiguous.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be clear about and know everything. Yet for our areas of responsibility, clarity is required for people to be able to trust us. For example, waiting to be one hundred percent certain before making an important decision, indicates that we aren’t clear about things.

2. Compassion

People put faith in those who care beyond themselves.

Being compassionate means extending care to others and being able to empathise. Understanding how the other person is thinking and feeling, while at the same time showing interest, builds the other person’s confidence and is an effective way of building a trusting relationship.

3. Character

People look up to those who do what is right.

Employees have a good eye when it comes to observing the behaviours of their leaders. The trust relationship here is not only effected by how a leader treats his employee, but also by the way he treats everyone else around them. We can be as kind and understanding with our employee as we like - if she witnesses us loosing our temper with an annoying sales person, her trust in our good character will start to waver.

We need to be clear about our character and act accordingly, not allowing any doubts to come up about the person we are.  

4. Contribution

Few things build trust quicker than actual results. At the end of the day, people need to see outcomes. We can have compassion and character, but without delivering our promised results, people won’t trust us. Delivering real outcomes matters a great deal for forming trust in our relationships.

5. Competency

People have confidence in those who stay fresh, relevant and capable.

Learning new ways of doing things and staying on top of current ideas and trends is what another way in which we can gain trust of people. When people trust us to be competent, people will confide in us, ask for our advice and involve us in their work. If we’re not competent - why would we even be allowed to lead?

6. Connection

People want to follow, buy from, and be around friends - and having friends is all about building connections. Trust is all about relationships and relationships are best built by establishing genuine connection.

Asking questions, listening, taking time and above all, showing gratitude are ways we can connect with our people. Building relationships at work contributes to knowing, understanding and trusting each other. Being willing to relate and engage with people, we’re laying the foundation upon which trust can grow.

7. Commitment

People believe in those who stand through adversity.

Being committed to help when things get hard, offering support in challenging times, this is another way of building trust in work relationships. When we’re solely committed to reach our goals no matter what, while ignoring the struggles people around us face, we’ll quickly find that no one will choose to confide in or seek out our advice.

8. Consistency

People trust those who stay true to themselves.

When people know what to expect from others, they’re able to form decisions and actions on this basis. Trust is shaken however, when we change our ways as frequently as a prata is flipped. Being consistent in the way we behave ties back to having clarity about the person we choose to be.

Basically, the way we speak, behave, treat and relate to others has a great impact on trust in our work relationships. Being the initiator of building trust is like an invitation for the other person to also do so. When people trust us, they feel secure enough to let go and allow us to trust them, too.

In what way do you choose to nurture trust in your work relationships today?

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