All human relationships need a solid basis of trust for them to grow, and workplace relationships are no different. We understand that whenever trust is missing or damaged, we will struggle to build anything other than the most superficial connection with those we work with. Moreover, when trust breaks down, it is impossible to cooperate and engage meaningfully with others.

What is it that makes trust so elusive, particularly at work?

For a start, trust is not something that a leader can demand from his team. It is something that is built layer by layer with each interaction between leaders and their team members. Each time a leader makes an explicit or implicit promise to team members and keeps that promise, then trust is strengthened. This is what is known as predictive trust; our team members look towards our past behaviour (or our ability to keep promises) and make an educated guess as to whether we are likely to act in their best interest in the future.

The issue with this method of building trust is that it is akin to walking a tightrope; one false move and you are going to have to start from scratch. We’ve all experienced how one broken promise can completely shatter our trust in a person we previously trusted blindly. It’s also very hard to start the process of rebuilding trust. It sounds harsh but it’s very much how we feel when our trust has been violated, so why should we expect our team members to act otherwise? 

So, are we fighting a losing battle when it comes to building trust in our teams?

It turns out that there are various ways in which trust can be built, and I’m sharing three ways I have found to be useful in my own leadership experience.

1. Be human

Contrary to popular belief, we do not trust people who pose as superheroes. We know that superheroes are fictional characters and when leaders show that they are human, with their bad days, limits to their knowledge etcetera, we trust them much more. So, apologise if you’ve inadvertently offended somebody, let them know you’re having “one of those days” and appreciate their understanding, ask them for their opinion when you don’t have “the answer”. This vulnerability will buy you barrels of forgiveness when you need it.

2. Only promise what you can deliver

It’s tempting to overpromise to keep your team happy but that’s a sure-fire way of disappointing people. Set realistic expectations and then work not only to meet those expectations but to exceed them.

3. Make your intentions explicit upfront

Human beings can be very suspicious about other people’s intentions, and most of the time they judge intentions by the impact of other people’s actions; for example, if I feel hurt then it must be because you meant to hurt me. It’s difficult to change how people feel about our actions after they’ve impacted them negatively, so be proactive and make your intentions clear upfront.

When it comes to trust, it is easy to think that it is something that your team members need to do. Just remember that it is ultimately something that you must do to bring it about. If you want to be trusted, be trustworthy.


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