14 ways to build workplace trust and improve performance
High performing teams and workplace trust go together hand in hand

14 ways to build workplace trust and improve performance

My experience, studies and research have proven that high performing teams and workplace trust go together hand in hand.

The results of workplace trust are plain to see: People have each other’s backs. They look out for one another. They understand each other, respect differences and work with common purpose and a shared feeling of belonging.

Managers and leaders are increasingly driven by KPI’s and targets. But leaders have to trust employees for the magic to happen. If you support a culture of workplace trust then KPI’s and targets tend to take care of themselves and are regularly exceeded.

The importance of trust in the workplace can’t be overstated. But getting started can feel like an uphill struggle. The methods below will put you on the right track to build trust in the workplace.

Why you should care about trust in the workplace

Before we get onto the methods, a word about Simon Sinek.

I love his work and his perspectives, and in this clip he spells out exactly why you should be concerned about how to build trust in employees.


 

Article contents

“Managers will never learn the truth about a company unless they have employees’ trust,”

Jim Dougherty, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management 

1. Review workplace trust

Before you act, you have to understand the situation that exists now.

A diagnosis of trust and confidence in the workplace will reveal where the problems are, which tells you what needs to change.

There are many ways to assess the current level of workplace trust.

It might be as simple as walking into an office where people are hunkered down, managers are walled off and there’s an obvious atmosphere of discomfort.

Fortunately the situation is rarely this severe, so you’ll need a more subtle way of discovering what level of trust exists.

I find that as workplace trust is a core ingredient of culture, you can gain knowledge by just asking people what it feels like to do their job.

Review workplace trust

How to review workplace trust
    • Ask your staff to complete our free Culture Gap survey to understand their daily experience. Questions can be tailored to your need – get in touch now to find out more

    • Ask your managers to provide records of how often people ask for help, and for which tasks

    • Observe whether your staff socialise together, both in and out of the workplace

    • Look at your internal comms metrics to see if people read, share and contribute to internal messaging

    • Include questions surrounding trust in an employee engagement survey: e.g. On a scale of 1-10 how much do you trust your manager?

 

2. Recognise threats to trust in the workplace

Some of the most traditional work practices fundamentally damage trust.

Authoritarian, threatening behaviour drives fear and is incompatible with a culture of workplace trust, from demanding sick notes to entrenched attitudes that prioritise hierarchies and rules over skills or merit.

Without trust there’s no loyalty. A study of over 7,000 executives, managers and employees demonstrated that 32% of someone’s desire to continue working at a company is tied directly to how much they trust their boss.

When it costs £12,500 to replace someone who leaves (according to the CIPD) you can begin to see that failing to understand what causes a lack of trust in the workplace can be seriously harmful to your business.

Threats to workplace trust

How to recognise threats to workplace trust
    • Revisit company rules to identify if they prioritise compliance or employee health and wellbeing

    • Review how your leaders live up to the duty of care they have for their teams: Do they create conflict? Do they communicate with clarity?

    • Examine whether appraisals are conducted under threatening circumstances, such as competition with colleagues

    • Look at whether managers or employees themselves take responsibility for improving poor individual performance

 

3. Understand that trust is a feeling

You must talk about emotions if you want to improve workplace trust.

Not everyone is comfortable talking about emotions. But it will be difficult to improve trust in the workplace without discussing how people feel.

This is because trust can’t be instructed. You can’t tell people to trust each other, just like you can’t order them to be happy at work.

Workplace trust is earned, and it grows as your people experience positive emotions while doing their jobs.

Here’s another clip from Simon Sinek, explaining that trust is an environmental factor – it’s how people feel about the place they work and the people they work with, rather than a rational decision they choose to make.

How to talk about workplace trust
    • Avoid telling people they “have” to trust you or other colleagues

    • Publicly acknowledge the achievements that build trust, whether that’s the contribution of an individual or a team’s overall consistency

    • Seek common ground with your people and find a way to connect to their experiences

    • Lead by example and make regular use of emotional words like “love”, “belonging” and, of course, “trust”

    • Try out our interactive Insights Discovery video to help better understand yourself and explore other perspectives

 

4. Acknowledge the power of workplace trust

It’s very simple – happy people are more productive than unhappy people.

I began Culturev8te with a lightbulb moment. Looking back at over 20 years in Human Resources I could clearly see that happy people deliver.

They’re more positive, seek more opportunities and work harder and smarter.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

There are many, many studies that prove a strong link between the level of workplace trust that people experience and their performance, and trust is one of the core ingredients to people feeling happy at work.

In just one example from the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organisation, a study using a UK-wide survey demonstrated a positive relationship between the average level of trust in managers and an employee’s financial performance, productivity and quality of work.

The power of workplace trust

How to convince people of the power of trust in the workplace

Trust is an “evolving thing that ebbs and flows,”

David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of The Truth About Trust.

5. Identify what trust in employees looks like

Understanding what you’re trying to achieve makes every step that much easier.

Because trust is a feeling it can be very difficult to tell people what it should look like, or what the visible results will be.

Finding examples of how trust works elsewhere can really help.

In the video below, a manager details exactly what trust in employees looks like: No questions. No worries. No hanging over the shoulder.

Just like with any other emotion, trying to create trust in the workplace from a standing start can be very hard.

Instead you should try finding and sharing inspiration from other people’s success stories as you begin to build an environment that will encourage trust to grow.

How to define success in building workplace trust
    • Ask your leaders to imagine how their teams would cope if they weren’t there – what would get done and what wouldn’t?

    • Ask your people what support they would need if their managers weren’t around – what would it take to get their jobs done?

    • Ask everyone to explain the biggest obstacle that stops them creating work they’re proud of, and how they think that could be removed 

    • Take part in Culturev8te’s 8 Step programme to define what success looks like for your business, and what steps are needed to get there

 

6. Appreciate how to build trust in the workplace

Building workplace trust takes thought, commitment and, above all, action.

Once you root out negative influences, get buy in on the power of workplace trust and have a picture of where you’re trying to get to, there are a wealth of trust-building tactics to put in place.

Everything you do should be designed around your people and their needs, their day-to-day experiences and the goals and aspirations they have.

In the clip below from a TEDTalk by Ben Hempstead, he explains how his company builds trust by creating a safe environment that supports employees to seek help and input on their work.

How to build trust in the workplace
    • Prioritise clarity in all communications, even if it creates challenges – people don’t trust ambiguous statements

    • Support your leaders to show compassion and to avoid convenient answers in favour of solutions with integrity

    • Strive for consistency in the way you handle people to create a trusted and reliable sameness across the organisation

    • Ensure that you are as competent and committed as you expect your people to be, and make sure this is visible to all

    • Continually develop leaders, giving them the confidence to challenge behaviours that are not representative of company values

 

7. Nurture workplace trust by being a coach, not a fixer

Solving people’s problems won’t prevent the same thing happening again.

Have you heard this expression? “Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they’ll feed themselves for life”.

Sometimes the old lessons are the best, and if you want to nurture trust in employees it’s critical that you and your leaders create the circumstances for people to learn and develop. 

Overall this can be more important than you might think:

A study of the UK’s Workplace and Employee Relations Survey found that restricting access to training had even more of an impact on trust in the workplace than freezing or cutting wages.

Nurture workplace trust

How to nurture workplace trust by being a better coach
    • Always make your first question “How can I help”

    • Provide people with the chance to learn what needs to be done by supporting their actions, not ordering them

    • Treat people like equals: ask them to explore their own solutions

    • Be clear with your expectations and lead by example with an approach that brings possible solutions, not potential problems

    • Show people that obstacles are opportunities to reinforce confidence and they shouldn’t be afraid of calculated mistakes – it’s the best way to learn

 

8. Build workplace trust by asking the right questions

Meaningless small talk won’t ever engage with meaningful big issues.

Knowing the right questions to ask your people can make a big difference. It enables people to open up and speak freely about the challenges that they feel need to be solved.

But the ‘right’ questions don’t always have to be ‘difficult’ questions.

They just have to be questions that tell your people they’re cared for, respected and involved.

Here’s another clip from Simon Sinek, where he talks about someone he met who loved his job so much because of the questions he was asked by management.

How to ask the questions that build workplace trust
    • Never ask “How are things going?”: It doesn’t encourage people to share

    • Always be specific: “What’s been getting in your way recently?”

    • Ask for real information about real problems: “Tell me how you felt returning from furlough”

    • Don’t interrupt to ask people questions, and don’t ask questions if you’re likely to be interrupted

    • When you ask questions, listen to the answer and if necessary reform the point in a new question

9. Reinforce trust by responding constructively

If you start being defensive, it’s better not to say anything. 

Once you begin asking people how they feel and you’ve started inviting specific feedback on the real issues they’re facing, don’t let them down. 

More than 50% of workers feel their leaders don’t respond constructively to their problems. But employees are 12 times more likely to recommend a company if their manager does respond constructively.

We need to learn how not to take feedback personally. 

Try watching this clip of another TEDTalk, this time from actor Frederik Imbo: He became a referee in search of lessons on how not to take things personally.

How to reinforce workplace trust by being constructive
    • At the very least, begin by saying: “Thank you for sharing that with me”

    • Stop yourself from interrupting or arguing, as this makes people unlikely to share their problems with you in the future

    • Focus on asking questions that engage with the future, rather than the past: “How can we make this situation better?”

    • Consider our Insights Discovery leadership programme. It helps improve awareness of how best to respond to your people by understanding their individual needs

 

10. Know that promises influence workplace trust

Be honest with your people about what is possible and what isn’t.

Delivering on your promises is a sure route to establishing trust, as people are given proof that what you say is what you mean. 

Much of this, however, is about understanding the actions that you are able to take, rather than telling people what they want to hear.

Being honest about what’s possible is crucial.

Here’s a useful video from Front Line Leadership, focusing on what it means to make promises and how to prevent yourself making promises you can’t keep.

How to create trust by promising what you can deliver
    • Be clear about what has already been decided, and don’t ask for input if changes aren’t possible

    • Be honest with yourself about the scale of your impact and be honest with others about what impact you might have

    • Build processes that enable you to keep track of what you’ve committed to and who with

    • If you did your best but still can’t deliver, engage with people early, openly and take full responsibility

 

11. Treat everyone fairly and consistently to preserve workplace trust

If you only ever play favourites you’ll never earn people’s trust. 

It’s natural that some people at work will get on better than others.

Friendships and relationships that grow in the office can be beneficial, but it’s important that they don’t influence behaviour.

When some of your people feel they are treated differently, or when one person is allowed to operate by alternative rules, the structure that preserves trust in the workplace falls down.

Preserve workplace trust

How to preserve workplace trust through fairness
    • If certain rules have to exist, ensure that they are formally communicated and visibly enforced

    • Involve people in rule creation wherever possible and always make time to explain WHY they are important

    • Use huddles or team meetings to agree processes for decisions such as requesting annual leave or the need for people to learn a new skills

    • Complement this with display boards that openly share leave bookings, shift patterns, skills and similar team arrangements

    • Consider allowing team members as a whole to make decisions on whether exceptions are approved

    • Allow teams to form their own huddles to encourage self management

 

12. Uphold workplace trust by mastering empathy

Understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Empathy is often talked about but just as often misunderstood.

Telling someone you know how they feel is not empathy, it’s sympathy. Empathy is genuinely ‘feeling’ how they feel, rather than feeling sorry for how they feel.

It’s a difficult thing to do, especially at work, but without it people can find their concerns and problems being swept away or papered over, which is hugely detrimental to trust and empowerment in the workplace.

This wonderful talk by author Dr Brené Brown manages to get to the heart of why empathy is so challenging and important.

How to uphold trust in the workplace through empathy
    • Begin by attentively listening to what people are telling you, allowing them to finish before you respond

    • If you struggle to fully understand their perspective ask them for more information, rather than attempting to guess

    • Take care to notice and acknowledge the way the speaker is feeling
       
    • Don’t attempt to make light or try to put a good perspective or spin on what they’re going through

    • Check in regularly

13. Demonstrate workplace trust through action

Showing confidence in people will build their confidence in you.

Trust is something that has to be earned, but that goes both ways: How can you trust someone you’ve never tried to trust? How can you trust someone who’s never trusted you?

The responsibility is on leaders to create environments that support trust. Places that people can learn by doing, learn from their mistakes and learn through being challenged.

Delegating is notoriously difficult, but only if we focus on how we would do something.

People don’t feel trusted if they’re asked only to repeat someone else’s actions

Demonstrate workplace trust

How to demonstrate workplace trust in people
    • Learn the art of delegation: Communicate your expectations exactly, don’t prescribe actions and always check in before expected delivery

    • Practice delegating by playing to people’s strengths, before providing opportunities to improve their weaknesses

    • When problems arise, remember to be a coach and don’t demand to take control of the situation

    • Recognise people’s achievements, especially outside of their comfort zone, both in private and public

    • Know your people: What’s their comfort zone? What will stretch them? What will cause panic?

    • Invest in an Insights Discovery programme to help strengthen team cohesion and inform you and your leaders

 

14. Maintain workplace trust by understanding people

You can’t use the same approach for everyone in your team.

Although research shows that trust depends on common factors, from keeping promises to being treated fairly, how you build trust with each individual will require a personal touch.

Some people connect better through conversation, and finding similarities. Others build stronger relationships in shared achievements or experiences. 

Every method of building trust will rely on you or your leaders having a good understanding of your people and their personalities. 

How to maintain workplace trust by understanding your people
    • Create regular opportunities for teams and departments to mix, formally and informally

    • Provide two-way internal communication channels such as forums or hubs

    • Support your leaders to better understand their people and encourage them to keep you informed

    • Consider our accredited Insights Discovery programme, providing individual personality profiles and team wheels to inform overall performance

Where next?

It’s important to continue your quest to build and maintain trust in the workplace by using measurements that support people, not just track performance.

The best Key Performance Indicators should encourage a sense of shared purpose, build belonging within the business and form trust among teams.

In the end, cultivating workplace trust relies more on the carrot than the stick.

Use our calendar app below to request a free Discovery Session at a time that suits you.