Career Coach: How to build trust at work

April 13

Go into many organizations and you might hear people say things like “I don’t trust my co-workers to do what they say they will,” “My boss can’t be trusted to keep confidential information” or “This place really lacks trust among colleagues.” Lack of trust is a common complaint among employees, and people want to be in workplaces with strong levels of trust.

Trust is so important that many scholars say it is the foundation of a healthy workplace.

In his book, “The Speed of Trust,” Stephen M.R. Covey describes trust as confidence in the abilities and integrity of others, and distrust as being suspicious of others’ agenda, capabilities or integrity. He says that increased trust among co-workers produces increased speed of efficiency and a decrease in cost because people are able to get more things done.

What difference does it make if you have an organization with a lack of trust? People spend energy holding onto their negative feelings toward each other rather than working productively on the job. They spend time accusing each other of hidden agendas and then doing research to prove or disprove each other’s intentions. In short, they spend time focusing on the negative issues and less on the work itself. They may simply do the work without giving anything more. Subsequently, the organization is not as healthy or productive as it could be. Studies show that productivity, profits and income are positively or negatively impacted depending on the level of trust in the workplace.

Patrick Lencioni in his popular business books, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Advantage,” notes that the first dysfunction of a team is an absence of trust among team members. He writes that members of teams with an absence of trust:

Conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another.

Hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback.

Hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibility.

Jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them.

Fail to recognize and tap into one another’s skills and experiences.

Waste time and energy managing their behaviors for effect.

Hold grudges.

Dread meetings and find reasons to avoid spending time together.

Companies can build workplace trust, but it won’t happen quickly. It will take time for employees to share their experiences, experience credibility from follow-through and a learned appreciation for the contributions of all members.

The leader has to serve as a role model. He or she has to be seen as credible (i.e., doing what he/she says they will do, keeping commitments, keeping confidential information private and not talking badly about employees in front of others).

Get members to learn about each other as people. One exercise that Lencioni suggests (which I have personally used in many situations) is the Personal Histories Exercise. Get co-workers to share something about themselves (hobbies, childhood, family situation, hometown, etc.). The key is to get them to learn something personal about each other so that they can relate to each other as human beings. This can promote greater empathy and understanding .

Keep staff members informed. Transparency in communication is critical for employees to feel a sense of trust in the organization. So, leaders have to be accessible. During tough times, they have to recognize that people have concerns and help to address those.

Organize team-building activities. It is amazing how an exercise can really get colleagues to learn to see the value each brings to the workplace. One program that I have used with top management teams has used both physical and mental challenges for teammates. I really like doing this since it can highlight unique contributions individuals can make since a person who may not be good at physical challenges can still show contributions by their strength in word games, brain puzzles or other mental activities.

Listen with respect and show empathy. Leaders especially need to show that they care about each and every employee as individuals. This is an area many of my coaches and I have to work with managers on.

Use a team effectiveness exercise. Lencioni suggests each member of a team tell other members what their greatest contribution is to the team as well as what one thing they should improve in. This can reveal valuable information for each person. Of course, having a strong facilitator will be important to avoid hard feelings.

Use a personality assessment. Using something such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Strength Deployment Inventory can show similarities and differences among colleagues so that they can better appreciate the contributions that each person brings to the table. Having used both of these tools in many organizations, I have seen that employees truly appreciate understanding each others’ styles and preferences.

Confront and right wrongs that exist in the organization.

Use a 360-degree feedback tool to provide colleagues with developmental feedback that can help them see how others view their strengths and areas to improve. Often I have found that people may not really understand how they are coming across to others.

Trust is critical as the foundation for any organization that wants to be successful. It takes time to build and takes effort to maintain. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be conflict. It does mean that handling conflict will be done in a healthy way. Each action taken by the leader and employees makes a difference in building a strong trusting culture. If done, the rewards can be monumental.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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