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Building a culture of trust

3 min read


Is your organization built on a culture of trust?

Look around you; there are plenty of clues as to whether trust abounds. How quickly are decisions made? How many people do you copy (or worse, bcc) on e-mails? Do executives check in on the “troops” even when on vacation?

Given that 82% of workers don’t trust their boss, trust is a scarce resource in many organizations.

When it comes to creating a trusting workplace culture, the best place to start is with you. As a leader, you either believe in someone’s trustworthiness or you don’t. Leaders who try to split the difference with “trust but verify” won’t build a culture of healthy organizational trust.

Trusting others doesn’t mean that you abdicate your responsibility as a leader. Quite the opposite: When you create a culture of trust, you are demonstrating your belief in others — that, given the proper tools, objectives and leadership guidance, people can and will step up and give their best. This takes courage — it’s not always easy to trust when the stakes are high or grievances inform your thinking.

Trust is about creating space for people to thrive; excessive verifying diminishes that space. Use these five tips to reduce the amount of verifying happening in your company so that trust will flourish:

  1. Assume positive intent, until proven otherwise. This is the basis for building a culture of trust. Whenever you hear incriminatory information ask yourself, “Why am I assuming the worst of this person or situation?” Seek out other reasonable explanations for why people acted the way they did. Jumping to conclusions kills trust.
  2. Banish bureaucracy. Nothing erodes trust faster than having to jump through hoops to get something done at work. When employees are mired in excessive rules, they get the message loud and clear: “We don’t trust you to do the right thing.”
  3. Look at your company’s written word. For example, how long are your contracts? The longer the contract, the less that trust is present. The same goes for e-mails. The compulsion to cover every single angle to protect oneself is, at its core, a statement of mistrust.
  4. Tell employees: “I trust you to make a good decision.” Nine out of 10 times, they will. And on that 10th time, when someone messes up? It’s the perfect opportunity to affirm your trust in that person. “Yeah, you made a mistake — that represents a poor decision. But I still trust you.”
  5. Eliminate “we” and “they” when describing other teams. Listen for language that hints at an “us against them” mentality. Whenever you hear someone saying, “Well, they won’t _____, so we have to ____,” take out the pronouns. Insist that people use others’ names, not for the purpose of blaming others but to humanize the interaction.

For a trustworthy vibe to take root in your organization, someone has to go first. It may as well be you. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” So go on, give trust a try. When you offer up your trust without the constraints of constant verification, you just might find that far from being scarce, trust is a renewable resource.

Jennifer V. Miller, managing director of SkillSource, helps midcareer professionals strategize their next big “leap.” She wrote a chapter on trust in “The Character-Based Leader,” blogs at The People Equation and tweets via @JenniferVMiller.