What’s the key to less stress, more energy, increased productivity, and better health? According to research from an article written by Paul J. Zak for Harvard Business Review, the answer is simple: trust. When companies dedicated time toward building trust, their employees experienced exponential results. For example, people reported “74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.”
A company without trust in leadership is like a ship without water. Try as you might, it isn’t going anywhere. When teams lack trust in the workplace, leaders begin micromanaging because they fear that people aren’t equipped to do their job. The amount of time spent on low-priority work increases, affecting productivity and stress levels. This results in fewer hours executives have for strategizing and planning the company’s next moves. Because of this, the organization begins falling behind and playing a reactive game. Additionally, individuals stop openly contributing for fear of judgment, rejection, or dismissal. If there is no sign of belief in them and their abilities, employees have little motivation for putting in more than minimal effort and they are more likely to jump ship and join a different venture.
Overall, building trust should be a focal point of all organizations. Lack of trust in the workplace stifles creativity, innovation, collaboration, communication, productivity, engagement, and every other requirement that leads a company toward success.
Avoid developing a toxic workplace environment and team culture by learning what trust is, plus 10 ways for building trust as a leader.
- Employees experience less stress and higher productivity when leadership builds trust
- According to John Maxwell, building trust means matching words to actions
- 70 percent of change programs fail due to lack of trust in leadership
- Only 50 percent of employees are aware of what management expects of them
- Building trust means leaders constantly showing up for their team members
What is Trust?
Definition of Trust in Relationships
The American Psychological Association (APA) says that trust is the “reliance on or confidence in the dependability of someone or something.” Having trust means believing someone else is consistently dependable and safe. Without these factors, interpersonal relationships cannot grow. It’s something that develops over a period of time. In a Minute with Maxwell video leadership expert John Maxwell explains, “You and I are either depositing into our trustworthy account or to be honest with you, we’re withdrawing . . . How do I expand and grow that trustworthy account? . . . Number one, my words and my actions are the same . . . Number two, I think trustworthy accounts are built when you continually mean the best and do the best for people.” It goes to show building trust is a choice to either invest or divest in others. As a result, knowing how to build trust in a relationship becomes a vital skill.
How to Build Trust: Top 10 Ways to Build Trust in Teams
When building trust in the workplace among team members, there are a variety of strategies business leaders can model and teach to create a trusting workplace environment. Below, find 10 ways to build trust as an executive, director, or manager.
1. Consistently follow through on your commitments.
Trust requires predictability. If another person perceives a leader as unpredictable, unstable, or unreliable, then trust will be limited or non-existent. The best way to establish trust is by keeping your words and actions in sync with one another. For example, don’t commit to something you aren’t able to do. This might look like promising a raise in six months when you aren’t sure if the company’s financial health will allow this to happen. Commit to what you believe you can realistically achieve. If you’re not sure, take time to reverse engineer a decision before you make it. Learn more about decision making, here.
Effective leaders know that to build trust they must deliver on promises and commitments. Those who overpromise and underdeliver quickly become seen as disingenuous or worse, a fraud. Respect and belief in someone can’t develop in conditions of disappointment and low morale. But, when a leader shows consistency and proves their words have value, trust in the workplace grows.
2. Quickly admit and amend mistakes when they’re made.
As a leader, there will be times when you drop the ball and disappoint people. Failure is a part of life. An important aspect of building trust is ownership of errors. When a person in power can’t admit their role in a mistake or point fingers at other people, they automatically withdraw from their trustworthy account. This is because they’re not acting with accountability, and therefore integrity. As best-selling author and world-famous speaker Simon Sinek once said, “Trust has two dimensions: competence and integrity. We will forgive mistakes of competence. Mistakes of integrity are harder to overcome.”
Leaders who own their failures also teach team members how to get back up when they fall. They’re the first in the room to address their mistakes and take action to make amends in whatever way that’s needed. Additionally, they show their team that failure is to be expected at a progressive company. This attitude eliminates perfectionism in the workplace and creates a seat at the table for creativity and innovation.
3. Communicate with emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence (EI) is one of the top keys to building trust in the workplace because it weaves together strong interpersonal connections. There are four quadrants of EI: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management. When a leader is deficient in one or more of these areas, developing secure relationships with team members, clients, and customers becomes a problem. For example, a person with a low amount of EI might become easily angered, act out of self-interest, or lack empathy. None of these qualities is conducive to creating trust because they all make a person seem unpredictable and unreliable. The good news is a person’s EI can increase over time.
Tips for increasing EI include:
- Recognizing emotional triggers and developing a process for working through them.
- Developing a mindfulness practice.
- Setting intentions.
- Receiving feedback.
- Taking time to problem solve.
- Understanding how your thoughts, words, actions, and behaviors affect others.
- Practicing listening skills.
- Reading the room for non-verbal cues.
- Feeling with people, rather than feeling sorry for them.
- Establishing a few hours each week toward goal-setting and incentives for reaching these objectives.
- Spending time investing in your team, resolving conflict, and advocating for collaboration and teamwork.
4. Appropriately manage change and pivots.
Leaders know the truth in philosopher Heraclitus’s famous quote, “The only constant in life is change.” Change, adaptation, and innovation sit in the driver’s seat of successful businesses. Yet, implementing change cannot happen unless leaders and employees operate upon a foundation of trust and support. In fact, John Kotter’s foundational work published in Leading Change showed 70 percent of change programs failed. This is mostly in part due to a lack of employee buy-in and management support. They need to learn how to trust, and that starts with seeing leadership make necessary changes efficiently.
In an article for McKinsey & Company, Emily Lawson and Colin Price say four conditions prompt effective change. The first is telling a compelling story to illustrate the effects of the change being made. The second is seeing those in leadership modeling the change being implemented. Next, the change must be reinforced and supported by those instilling it. “Reporting structures, management, and operational processes, and measurement procedures—setting targets, measuring performance, and granting financial and nonfinancial rewards—must be consistent with the behavior that people are asked to embrace,” the duo writes. Finally, leaders must ensure their team receives the training and guidance needed to become capable of making the change.
Find out more about creating a trusting process when guiding through change.
5. Show appreciation and gratitude.
Trust is built when leaders value and invest in their teams. Yet, research shows there’s a lack of appreciation in the workplace. For example, a study conducted by Psychometrics shows that more than half of employees want more acknowledgment from their bosses at work. When team members feel taken for granted, they begin disengaging, disassociating, and disconnecting from their leaders and the mission everyone is trying to accomplish. The best way of combating this as a leader is showing every person on the team just how much they’re valued. This also helps team members as they learn how to trust leaders.
When leaders get into the mindset of appreciation, it shifts the workplace dynamic. The narrative changes from “Here’s a job—do it,” to “Thank you for what you’re doing. Your work is invaluable in fulfilling our mission. Without you, we couldn’t make a difference in the world.” Showing appreciation and gratitude is also infectious. According to psychologists Sara Algoe and Jonathan Haidt, witnessing and interacting with positively influential people elevates others toward self-improvement and developing better relationships. Modeling leadership is one of the best ways of teaching it to your team. It shows people how you live your values, establishing trust, respect, and influence over time.
6. Eliminate judgment from work environments.
The fastest way to suppress creativity and innovation is to be judgemental. Judgment takes many forms because it can be communicated non-verbally and verbally. Whether it’s a dismissive comment or negative body language like rolling your eyes and shaking your head, it’s easily perceived by those who fall victim to it. Once a person experiences judgment, they tend to feel insecure and shy away from sharing their ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
Oftentimes judgment occurs when a person avoids having a direct conversation. Instead of talking about a person, talk to them. As Walt Whitman once said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” Before breaking a person’s trust and causing them to feel small, engage in a conversation. Ask them why they think the way they do, what influences their opinion, and listen with an open mind. Create the space to dig deeper into a place of understanding.
7. Don’t dismiss the power of vulnerability.
Vulnerability is one of the keys to building trust. It’s the glue that seals together long-lasting relationships, even when times get tough. For this reason, every leader needs to become proficient in this leadership skill. One of the best resources for learning how to lead with vulnerability is Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. Brown defines vulnerability as “the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” It is crucial for acting as a brave, steadfast leader who grows and maintains trust.
Practicing vulnerability includes:
- Engaging in tough conversations, even when they’re easy to avoid.
- Being a good listener who is solution-oriented when handling problems.
- Circling back to discussions that require your thinking time or a fresh perspective.
- Living the values you’ve decided dictate your thoughts, words, actions, and behaviors.
- Feeling with someone who is going through a hard time.
- Giving others the benefit of the doubt and assuming they’re doing their best.
- Consistently showing up over small moments for individuals on your team.
- Teaching the art of getting back up after a big setback or failure.
Read a summary of Dare to Lead filled with more strategies for improving your vulnerability abilities.
8. Set clear expectations.
Building trust in the workplace is more likely to happen when people have clarity around what is expected of them. It’s easy to cross lines when they aren’t clear. A study from Gallup discovered that only 50 percent of employees are aware of what their manager expects from them at work. Clarity limits workplace conflict and upset by establishing guidelines for what is expected and accepted. It also informs people of what will not be tolerated in the workplace. When a leader creates these boundaries, they set clear perimeters for how the team operates.
To avoid the potential breakdown of work relationships try:
- Defining expectations for each individual on the team.
- Setting expectations with employees during the onboarding process.
- Communicating guidelines both in-person and on paper.
- Creating a consistent rhythm for the completion of work. For instance, every project cannot be a “rush project.”
- Developing realistic timelines.
- Ensuring expectations are agreed upon.
- Working through hesitation, questions, or problems about the communicated expectations.
Check out the other ways that leaders can set expectations with this article.
9. Don’t share information that isn’t yours to share.
It’s hard to bounce back from a violation of trust like sharing confidential, sensitive, or personal information and experiences. In the workplace, this might look like telling someone else about a private conversation you’ve had with another team member. If events like this keep happening, people will conclude they can’t come to you with trusted information because you’ll let it slip. Even worse, safeguarded information can also be used as ammunition for unhealthy workplace behaviors like gossip. This can make team members feel devalued, embarrassed, hurt, and rejected by those they work with. This behavior should not be tolerated in the workplace.
Trust is the byproduct of words and actions aligning. If you say a conversation is confidential, then keep it confidential. Brené Brown calls locking away sensitive information “vault,” because that’s exactly where it should be stored. When a person comes to you in confidence, show them that their information or experience is safe with you. As a leader building trust, psychological safety, stability, and predictability are key when handling personal information. Employees feel safe when they see you hold to your word.
10. Be decisive and act with confidence and belief.
Leaders must believe in the guiding vision that directs the business’s initiatives. A CEO who is constantly second-guessing themselves causes uncertainty and instability. None of these conditions create a foundation for building trust, because—as mentioned before—trust requires predictably. When a leader is indecisive, team members begin feeling like they’re lost in the woods at night awaiting an ambush. Immobility is palpable. It produces fear, anxiety, and stress, all strong components of a toxic workplace.
Your team needs to believe you believe the end game is achievable and that you’ve got a plan to make it happen. If you don’t believe in your vision, no one else will. This affects engagement, productivity, and employee retention. Inspiration and motivation—the two key factors in getting people excited about accomplishing your vision—are just communicated belief.
To boost confidence and self-belief:
- Recognize the areas you struggle with and develop strategies for handling triggers.
- Engage with learning materials and expand your knowledge.
- Shift out of a fixed mindset and into a growth mindset.
- Practice positivity.
- Show gratitude and thanks.
- Work through limiting beliefs.
- Learn your strengths and work alongside them.
- Make visualization a daily habit.
- Join a mastermind group of entrepreneurial peers.
- Channel anxious energy away from the body, mind, and spirit.
Building Trust Requires Getting Your Hands Dirty
Building trust isn’t easy work. In fact, there will be times when it feels uncomfortable or intimidating. For instance, this might look like being empathic, not sympathetic, when a team member loses a loved one. It could also mean having an honest conversation about diversity and inclusion when it’s something the company hasn’t heavily focused upon in the past. Trust is built in leaders who are willing to consistently show up alongside their team through it all. They don’t just appear when times are good. Real leaders are the first responders when times get tough. As Daniel Goleman, a leading expert on emotional intelligence explains, “Instead of being the invisible entity who spends his or her time at black-tie CEO events in DC, this is a leader who delves into the real day-to-day functions of the business. And that’s the type of leader who builds trust.”
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- The Neuroscience of Trust. (2017). https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust
- APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2023). https://dictionary.apa.org/trust
- Minute With Maxwell: EARNING TRUST – John Maxwell Team. Maxwell Leadership. January 5, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsoCBquLGKg&ab_channel=MaxwellLeadership
- Algoe, S., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: the ‘other-praising’ emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. The Journal Of Positive Psychology, 4(2), 105-127. doi: 10.1080/17439760802650519
- Gallup, I. (2015). Obsolete Annual Reviews: Gallup’s Advice. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236567/obsolete-annual-reviews-gallup-advice.aspx
- LinkedIn: How Leaders Build Trust – Discover Your True North. (2015). https://discoveryourtruenorth.org/how-leaders-build-trust/