The Secrets to Developing Trusting Relationships in the Workplace

Businesswomen talking in office
••• Cultura/Lilly Bloom/Getty Images

Trust. You know when you have trust; you know when you don't have it. Yet, what is trust and how is it usefully defined for the workplace? Can you build trust when it doesn't exist? How do you maintain and build upon the trust you may currently have in your workplace? These are important questions for today's rapidly changing world.

Trust forms the foundation for effective communication, employee retention, and employee motivation and contribution of discretionary energy, the extra effort that people voluntarily invest in work. When trust exists in an organization or in a relationship, almost everything else is easier and more comfortable to achieve.

The Three Constructs of Trust—Definition

When you read about trust, the number of definitions that purportedly describe trust in understandable ways—but don't is striking. According to Dr. Duane C. Tway, Jr. in his 1993 dissertation, "A Construct of Trust":

"There exists today, no practical construct of Trust that allows us to design and implement organizational interventions to significantly increase trust levels between people. We all think we know what Trust is from our own experience, but we don't know much about how to improve it. Why? I believe it is because we have been taught to look at Trust as if it were a single entity."

Tway defines trust as, "the state of readiness for unguarded interaction with someone or something." He developed a model of trust that includes three components. He calls trust a construct because it is constructed of these three components: "the capacity for trusting, the perception of competence, and the perception of intentions." Thinking about trust as made up of the interaction and existence of these three components makes trust easier to understand.

  • The capacity for trusting means that your total life experiences have developed your current capacity and willingness to risk trusting others.
  • The perception of competence is made up of your perception of your ability and the ability of others with whom you work to perform competently at whatever is needed in your current situation.
  • The perception of intentions, as defined by Tway, is your perception that the actions, words, direction, mission, or decisions are motivated by mutually-serving rather than self-serving motives.

    Why Trust Is Critical in a Healthy Organization

    How important is building a trusting work environment? According to Tway, people have been interested in trust since Aristotle. Tway states, "Aristotle (384-322 BC), writing in the Rhetoric, suggested that Ethos, the Trust of a speaker by the listener, was based on the listener's perception of three characteristics of the speaker.

    "Aristotle believed these three characteristics to be the intelligence of the speaker (correctness of opinions, or competence), the character of the speaker (reliability - a competence factor, and honesty - a measure of intentions), and the goodwill of the speaker (favorable intentions towards the listener)."

    This hasn't changed much to this day. Additional research by Tway and others shows that trust is the basis for much of the positive environment you want to create in your workplace. Trust is the necessary precursor for:

    • feeling able to rely on a person
    • cooperating with and experiencing teamwork with a group
    • taking thoughtful risks
    • experiencing believable communication

    The best way to maintain a trusting work environment is to keep from breaking trust in the first place. The integrity of the leadership of the organization is critical. The truthfulness and transparency of the communication with staff is also a critical factor. The presence of a strong, unifying mission and vision can also promote a trusting environment.

    Providing information about the rationale, background, and thought processes behind decisions is another important aspect of maintaining trust. Another is the organizational success; people are more apt to trust their competence, contribution, and direction when part of a successful project or organization.

    Things That Injure the Trust Relationship

    Yet, even in an organization in which trust is a priority, things happen daily that can injure trust. A communication is misunderstood; a customer order is misdirected and no one questions an obvious mistake.

    The owner of a company that went through a bankruptcy, was trusted by employees on the intentions side of Tway’s trust model. But, he was severely injured in the eyes of the workforce in the perceived competence part of the model. The employees knew his heart was in the right place. They didn't believe he was capable of taking the organization there. They never recovered.

    In the first aspect of the construct, capacity for trust, even when organizations do their best, many people are unwilling to trust because of their life experiences. In many workplaces, people are taught to mistrust as they are repeatedly misinformed and misled.

    The Critical Role of the Leader or Supervisor in Trust Relationships

    Simon Fraser University assistant professor, Kurt T. Dirks, (see endnote) studied the impact of trust in college basketball team success. After surveying the players on 30 teams, he determined that players on successful teams were more likely to trust their coach.

    He found these players were more likely to believe that their coach knew what was required for them to win. They believed the coach had their best interests at heart; they believed the coach came through on what he promised. (Something to think about: trust in their teammates was hardly deemed important in the study.)

    Del Jones of the Gannett News Service reports that in a March 2001 Wirthlin Worldwide study of employees, 67 percent said they were committed to their employers. Only 38 percent felt their employers were committed to them. In another study, by C. Ken Weidner, an assistant professor at the Center for Organization Development at Loyola University Chicago, findings suggest several implications for organizational performance and change.

    Weidner found that a manager’s skill in developing relationships that reduce or eliminate distrust have a positive impact on employee turnover. He feels that turnover may be a result of organizations failing to draw people in. He also found that trust in the supervisor is associated with better individual performance.

    Build a Trust Relationship Over Time

    Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time. Marsha Sinetar, the author, said, "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."

    So fundamentally, trust, and here is the secret promised in the title of this article, is the cornerstone, the foundation, for everything you'd like your organization to be now and for everything you'd like it to become in the future. Lay this groundwork well.

    Trust is telling the truth, even when it is difficult, and being truthful, authentic, and trustworthy in your dealings with customers and staff. Can profoundly-rewarding, mission-serving, life- and work-enhancing actions get any simpler than this? Not likely.

    References About Trust Relationships

    • Dirks, Kurt T., Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 85(6), Dec 2000. pp. 1004-1012.
    • Jones, Del, Gannett News Service, 2001.
    • Meyer, R.C., Davis, J. H., and Schoorman, F. S., Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 1995.
    • Tway, Duane C., A Construct of Trust, Dissertation, 1993.
    • Tway, Duane C., Unpublished Paper, Leadership, and Trust: An Imperative for the Transition Decade and Beyond, 1995.