How to Build Trust at Work

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You can't always control the level of trust in your organization as a whole, but you can act in ways that promote trust in your immediate work environment. This environment may include your department, your work team or unit, or your coworkers in cubicle land.

Building trust in a smaller unit where you have some control helps to propagate trust in the larger organization. Managers who trust each other's coworkers tend to extend their trust to the larger organization as well. This, in turn, evokes trust in others.

Destroying then rebuilding trust allows you to look at what doesn't work to create a trusting work environment, but don't go there. Instead, start building trust from the beginning of your relationship with each new employee.

How to Build Trust at Work

  • Hire and promote people to supervisory positions if they're capable of forming positive, trusting interpersonal relationships with those who report to them. The supervisor's relationship with reporting employees is the fundamental building block of trust.
  • Develop the skills of all employees—especially those of current supervisors and people desiring promotion—in effective interpersonal relationship building.
  • Keep staff members informed. Provide as much information as you can comfortably divulge as soon as possible in any situation.
  • Act with integrity and keep commitments. If you can't keep a commitment, explain what's happening in the situation without delay. Observed behavior or actions are perceived by employees as the basis for predicting future behavior. Supervisors who act as if they're worthy of trust inspire more cooperation with fewer complaints.
  • Confront hard issues in a timely fashion. If an employee is frequently absent or spends work time wandering around, it's important to confront him or her about these issues. Other employees will be watching and learning to trust you more.
  • Protect the interests of all employees. Don't talk about absent employees or allow others to place blame, call names, or point fingers. Employees learn to trust when they know that their names aren't being taken in vain.
  • Display competence in supervisory and other work tasks. Know what you're talking about, and if you don’t know, admit it. Nothing builds trust more effectively than managers owning up to not knowing something and pledging to find out so that everyone is informed. The worst reaction occurs when a manager pretends to know and offers faulty information. Employees can forgive a lack of knowledge but may never forgive a lie.
  • Listen with respect and full attention. Exhibit empathy and sensitivity to the needs of staff members. Trust grows out of the belief that you can understand and relate.
  • Take thoughtful risks to improve services and products for the customer. When you take risks, you show employees that they may do the same—especially if there are no consequences when a thoughtfully considered risk goes awry. When risk-taking isn't penalized, trust is cemented.
  • Keep your expectations high. If you're a supervisor or team member, act as if you believe staff members are capable of living up to your standards. This support encourages your employees' best efforts and their trust.

If you're a human resources professional or line manager, you have the special role of coaching managers and supervisors in how to build trust at work. You affect the balance of power within the organization by developing and publishing supportive, protective policies. You're also influential in establishing appropriate social norms among people who are doing different jobs in your organization.

Fully commit to team-building activities when the larger organization is invested in creating a trusting, empowering work environment. Engaging in these activities outside the context of a team-focused culture may be counterproductive, eroding trust and negatively impacting everything you want to accomplish with your employees.

The Basis of Trust

As a corporate psychologist and author Marsha Sinetar wrote, “Trust is not a matter of technique, but of character; we are trusted because of our way of being, not because of our polished exteriors or our expertly crafted communications.”

You build and maintain trusting relationships and a culture of trust in your workplace one step at a time through every action you take and every interaction you have with your coworkers and employees. Trust may be fragile, but it has the capacity to grow strong over time.