workplace trust must be sustainable

Build workplace trust to last. (Image adapted from OpenSourceWay and Kishore Nagarigari, Flickr)


Last month, Inc. published a collection of 30 quotes to inspire workplace trust.
The list of quotes, compiled by Lead From Within president and CEO Lolly Daskal, quickly gets across a core truth about trust: it is a volatile emotion.
Trust is easily won, and just as easily broken. If neglected, trust can sour to mistrust or, even worse, fear.
We live in increasingly mistrustful times. A 2014 Pew Research study found that just 19 percent of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers and 40 percent of Baby Boomers.
This is good and bad news for building workplace trust. Your younger employees may not be as quick to trust as their older peers — so you’ll have to work harder to earn their trust — but the Pew study also found they’re more optimistic.
It’s important now more than ever to build sustainable workplace trust. Since trust is so volatile, employers who want trusting employees will need to mindfully and purposefully build a culture of trust every day.
Read on for tips for building sustainable workplace trust, and to find out the common way many managers undercut employee trust without even knowing it.

Want Better Workplace Trust? Ask A Dog

Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke recently wrote about a study of dog behavior that illustrates just how quickly trust can be lost.
In an experiment, researchers presented a dog with two sealed containers, one empty and one holding food. The dog couldn’t tell which had a treat and which was empty.
A person would first point accurately at the container that held food. When the dog approached, the container would be opened. The dog got the treat. The next time, the person would point to the empty container, and the dog would come up but find no treat.
“On the third try, with consistency, most dogs stopped responding to the human cues,” Huppke writes. “Trust had been broken and they went to the container that wasn’t being pointed at.”
Humans are like dogs in this respect, according to Huppke.
“We might be inclined to trust our bosses, but that trust must be continuously reinforced. And if it’s broken, humans are quick to stop paying attention,” he writes.

The Common Way Trust Is Lost

Of course, workplace communication is usually more complicated than pointing to containers of treats, and the vast majority of managers do not intentionally lie to employees.
But besides the speed at which trust can be lost, there’s another lesson we can take from the dog study. The dog that stops listening to its human partner will eventually stop responding entirely.
Workplace trust is often eroded over time by small choices that don’t seem to be a big deal in the moment, Huppke says.
“For example, say you’re heading up a project and suddenly another person comes to you and says they’ve been added to the team. Who added them? Your supervisor did. Why weren’t you told first? Your supervisor was busy and forgot to tell you,” he writes.
“The three minutes it would’ve taken the supervisor to give you a heads up about the new person and explain the decision would’ve made a huge difference,” he writes.
Instances of minor neglect like this add up over time. Soon, trust is abandoned — and it takes twice as much work to rebuild it.

How to Cultivate Sustainable Workplace Trust

Think of workplace trust as a growing plant that must be cultivated, watered and allowed plenty of sunshine. A paragraph about trust in the employee handbook won’t cut it.
HR Bartender’s Sharlyn Lauby suggests that a discussion of trust needs to begin even before employees are hired.
“When hiring, we need to ask questions during the interview process,” Lauby writes in her blog post “How to Build Trust at Work.” She has a few questions to start:

  • Tell me about a time when you distrusted a co-worker or supervisor. What did you do to improve the relationship?
  • Give an example of a time when you gave a co-worker the “benefit of the doubt.”
  • Share an instance when you’ve acted with integrity at work. How did your co-workers react?

Pay close attention, from the very beginning of an employee’s on-boarding, to how managers can more effectively communicate with employees and foster a solution-oriented culture in which potential disputes are cleared right away.
Trust isn’t just for people, writes Mark Lukens, founding partner at Method3, in the Fast Company column, “The 3 Necessary Types of Trust for the Workplace.”
Processes and technology also deserve our trust, and this takes a certain degree of letting go, he says.
Despite all the evidence to support the power of Big Data, for example, “very few managers will let go of their control over decision-making and trust those programs,” Lukens writes.
“This isn’t just about trusting a faceless machine. It’s about trusting your statisticians, your programmers and decades of human development and data gathering. Learn to trust the people behind the machine,” he writes.
In the end, trust is the most powerful driver of business. The Chicago Tribune’s Huppke looks for inspiration to Sheri Staak, author of the book “Tune In to Wow Leadership.”
“Trust is the unspoken currency that drives business,” Staak says. “Trust is that unspoken collateral and credibility that you have to be aware of and think about.”
How does your company sustain trust on a daily basis? Sustain it, and it will flourish!
For a comprehensive guide to growing a sustained workplace culture of respect, trust and appreciation, download our FREE eBook: Transform Your Workplace with Gratitude.
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