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Part 2: Cultivating a Culture of Trust, Common Challenges

As we explored in the first installment of my three-part series, cultivating a culture of trust has many benefits, including creating psychological safety and transparency in the workplace, thereby unleashing the full potential of your human capital. However, as a business leader, you can’t just wake up one day and magically implement trust at your business. To achieve a culture of trust, it’s vital to know what roadblocks are in the way.

First, many business leaders don’t clearly define trust. Instead, they interpret trust as a feeling. While trust certainly evokes certain feelings, it’s not a feeling in and of itself. If business leaders can’t define trust beyond a feeling, they can’t start a dialogue about trust with those they lead. Additionally, many business leaders think trust and honesty are synonyms, which is false. When people are accused of breaching trust, a typical response is, “I didn’t lie.” Trust can be broken without dishonesty. In fact, in many cases of broken trust, there wasn’t any intended ill will.

For over 30 years, I’ve been helping individuals and organizations build their cultures of trust. First, I have them come up with their own definition of the term. Individual definitions of the term vary, but in its most basic form, trust is when there’s a high correlation between expectations and observed outcomes.

The “ingredients” to achieve that high correlation between expectations and observed outcomes are where individual interpretations come into play. For example, maybe to you, trust is a mix of integrity, honesty and reliability. For another business leader, trust might be a combination of competence, genuine care and honesty. Whatever your interpretation is, make sure you clearly communicate it to your employees. Don’t bring up “trust” at work in a vague way. After all, as a leader, one of your primary responsibilities is to bring clarity to opaque concepts. In my next article, I’ll teach you exactly how you can clearly define trust on your terms.

It’s also important that you don’t bring up trust only once and then forget about it. You have to routinely discuss the topic of trust in day-to-day conversations. At many organizations, teams have an initial discussion to establish that trust is a core value. However, they fail to consistently talk about it afterward. When trust does come up again, it tends to be when it’s broken or close to being broken.

One common example? A manager and a new employee discuss expectations during the new employee’s first week of work but don’t have regular meetings to check in. The employee makes a series of mishaps that break the manager’s trust over time, but the manager doesn’t clearly address those issues until there’s a serious meeting where the employee gets “a talking to” or is perhaps even fired. If they had openly discussed those issues in a non-judgemental, non-accusatory manner during weekly one-on-ones, they could have avoided a tense situation.

Another pitfall is the mindset that trust is something that is earned. For instance, new employees have to prove themselves during their first few weeks at a job. Once they’ve earned that trust from management, they’ll typically be able to work more autonomously.

However, the problem with the “trust is earned, not given” mindset is that expectations aren’t always clear cut. In fact, expectations might be unrealistic altogether. This turns earning trust into a game of sorts. What if we flipped the script to “trust is given, not earned”? Consider this—if you’ve ever flown, you’ve put your trust in a crew you’ve never met. You’ve given your trust to these strangers, letting them take you thousands of feet in the air, without them having to earn it. Yet, in our relationships, we demand that people earn our trust. Instead, if we give trust upfront to those in our lives, we level the playing field and will be better able to nurture strong bonds.

We also tend to frequently hear the idea that trust is binary. This “I either trust you or I don’t” way of thinking is a misconception that can create an unhealthy workplace. Employees, scared of suddenly breaking your trust, might hold back on asking a clarifying question about a project or pointing out a flaw in a new product.

Rather, think of trust as being on a spectrum. You should start every relationship by placing trust at the high end of the spectrum. Move it down accordingly if need be. And, of course, there’s a point on that spectrum where trust can be irrevocably broken or lost.

At organizations, trust flows in different directions. From employees to managers, managers to CEOs, CEOs to board members and many other combinations. Of course, there’s also the trust we place in ourselves: self-confidence. To tackle the challenges of successfully cultivating a culture of trust in the workplace in all these different directions, you need to overcome a lot of ideas about trust that have been echoed in our culture. In the final article of my three-part series, I’ll show you pragmatic ways to do so.

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