Exploring Trust in the Workplace: What Is It and How It Can Be Built?

“Trust involves accepting a certain amount of risk in the absence of full knowledge... It involves, and is based on, credible evidence.” 

– Mac Van Wielingen

Trust is the foundation that great workplace environments are built on. For many, this just intuitively makes sense. People seem happier and more motivated when they can trust and rely on those around them. And what's more is that the research seems to agree with this sentiment, showing that high trust at work can positively impact employee engagement[1] and even firm performance. For evidence of the link between performance and trust, we can look to research from Interaction Associates and the Human Capital Institutewhich found that employees at high-performing organizations had more trust in their leaders and colleagues. Therefore, it is apparent that high levels of trust can have strong positive outcomes for organizations.

In contrast, a climate of low trust yields heavy consequences for organizations, and many are currently are suffering from a lack of trust. For example, In a recent study of 9,800 employees globally, "less than 50 percent of employees stated that they have trust in their boss or colleagues" [2]. Moreover, respondents in a low trust environment stated they were more likely to look for another job, work only the minimum number of hours required, make less of an effort to produce quality work, and speak negatively about the company to peers and potential candidates [2]. With such heavy consequences, it is not surprising that trust has increasingly become a focus for organizations.

Moreover, respondents in a low trust environment stated they were more likely to look for another job, work only the minimum number of hours required, make less of an effort to produce quality work, and speak negatively about the company to peers and potential candidates.

We now know that trust can impact organizational outcomes, but how can we better foster trust at work? In this article, we discuss what interpersonal trust is, and how it can be built at work by both leaders and employees.

What Is Interpersonal Trust at Work? 

“Trust is the willingness to be vulnerable”

Though there are many definitions of trust, perhaps the most popular one is that trust is the willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of others [3]. Yet, this vulnerability may occur in different ways, as people have two different bases for trust: cognitive and emotional.

Research has found that trust involves both the mind (cognitive processes) and the heart (emotional processes) [4]. You might trust someone because of information or knowledge, such as their past competence. For example, a person might put trust in a colleague to help finish a task because they have produced quality work in the past. Yet, you might also trust someone based on an emotional bond that you share with them. In a trust relationship, expressing care and concern for the well-being of the other party, and expecting that such feelings are reciprocated, can help form these types of bonds. For example, you might trust a member of your team, regardless of previous task performance, because you know them personally, have common interests, and generally have had a positive relationship with them.

Research has found that trust involves both the mind (cognitive processes) and the heart (emotional processes).

To explain these concepts further, we can simply look at the way that people talk about trust. For example, you may hear someone say, “I trust him on a personal level, but can’t vouch for the quality of his work,” which shows the emotional component of trust. Yet, they might also say things such as, “I think she’s really technically strong, and the team really relies on her work, but as a friend, I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could throw her!”, showing the cognitive component of trust.

Although there are several proposed models for describing interpersonal trust within organizations, the one we use here at Viewpoint-- which integrates both cognitive and emotional bases-- is Charles Feltman’s model of 'Trust as a Decision' [5]. This model is outlined in his book, "The Thin Book of Trust" [5]. 'Trust as a Decision' is centered around the idea that we use four distinctions to make assessments of trust: 1) Sincerity, 2) Reliability, 3) Competence, and 4) Care. When evaluating whether or not to trust someone, Feltman proposes that we make assessments based on these four factors, which then combine to form an overall assessment of trust. For example, if you need to delegate a task to someone, you might assess whether that person is generally honest, has kept their promises in the past, appears equipped to handle the task, and has your team’s best interests in mind.

Building and Maintaining Trust: A Practical Approach

“Changes to incentives, new codes, and a clearer mapping of responsibilities will help improve conduct and lay the groundwork for better culture”. – Mark Carney

So, given the impact of trust organizational outcomes, what can we do as individuals and leaders to build interpersonal trust within our organizations?

We can get some ideas by looking at mistrust in the banking sector over the last decade. During this time, trust in banking had declined dramatically due to the prevalence of unethical behaviour within the industry, including the misuse of client funds and manipulation. Yet, in recent years, several policy changes occurred within the banking sector, which has facilitated greater trust in the industry. This included:

  1. Improved reporting standards, which were put in place with the goal of fostering clearer communication
  2. The decision to build more relational connections with clients
  3. The revision of core values, which has given employees a broader purpose. 

Furthermore, this new purpose serves to emphasize the connection between employees and their clients/communities [6]. 

Interestingly, the changes that have been made in the banking industry overlap with some of the factors that were found by researchers to be most conducive to building trust. These factors are: treating each other with respect, doing quality work, collaborating, communicating openly, behaving ethically, mutually assisting each other, and appreciating or recognizing others’ work and contributions [2].

An Everyday Guide to Building and Maintaining Trust

With these factors in mind, here are some ways to foster trust in your day to day interactions as a leader and as an employee:

  1. Have ‘water cooler chats.’ Set aside a few minutes each day to talk about non work-related topics with your coworkers or direct reports. This dedicated time could be integrated into the beginning or end of your meetings, or during a morning or afternoon coffee break. Informally learning a little bit about each other can foster commonality and build rapport.
  2. Start the cycle. Place trust in your team members by delegating small tasks and building their confidence. Define the “what” and the “when” of a task, but then allow them the freedom to decide “how” to get there. You should also make an effort to share something with your team members or direct reports. Trust is a reciprocal cycle, so placing trust in others is a good first step.
  3. Show your team how their work and goals contribute to a common, greater goal. One way of fostering trust is to make it more salient to people how their work, and the work of their colleagues, contributes to the achievement of larger goals. One way of doing this could be to use a Kanban Board system. This system, pioneered by Toyota engineers in the 1940s, allows team members to visually see tasks move from the starting point to the completion point. This may help team members better visualize how their day-to-day tasks are contributing to the team and help foster a sense of reliability and accountability.
  4. Give personal recognition. A little gratitude goes a long way. Showing that you appreciate the efforts and contributions of others can build trust and a sense of interpersonal care. You can bolster gratitude through little gestures, such as having appreciation shout-outs in team meetings, where members are recognized for their help or work. Additionally, giving out ‘thank you’ notes or cards can also help create a large impact and help people feel recognized.
  5. Create a safe space for growth. Let your team members or direct reports know that mistakes and questions are normal in the process of learning. This will enable them to be more trusting with each other and will allow them to share more information with one another. This increased trust can even enable employees to be more productive, as it encourages people to ask appropriate questions when they don’t know the answers.

This work has been funded by Viewpoint Foundation.


Read more insights like this by signing up for Sagacious, our free weekly business news and research newsletter.

 Get our insights sent straight to your inbox, every Friday.
No exceptions, No Catch.