How do we build trust at work?

By Carolyn Stern
Oct 17, 2023
Photo credit: scyther5/iStock/Getty Images

In this podcast episode, Carolyn Stern, emotional intelligence and leadership development expert, speaks with Leah Giesbrecht, communications specialist at CPABC, about how we can foster trust at work to experience the long-term benefits of building a high-trust culture. Part of our Coffee Chats with CPABC podcast series. 

Hear from Carolyn at her upcoming sessions, Building and Fostering Trust (Nov. 6-17), The Emotionally Strong Leader Book Club (Nov. 8-Dec. 13), and The Power of Self Coaching (Nov. 12). 

Imagine if while you were at work, you experienced 74% less stress and 106% more energy. That’s what people report who work at companies where there is a high level of trust, as compared to those at low-trust organizations. Alongside those benefits, people at high-trust companies also note significantly higher productivity and far less burnout.  

For those who aren’t working in a high-trust environment – what’s getting in the way? Some of the main challenges that impede developing and preserving trust are outlined below, along with some pointers on how we can all foster trust at work to experience the long-term benefits of building a high-trust culture.

Trust: What erodes it and how can we build it back up?

Lack of communication: Inadequate or unclear communication can lead to misunderstanding, mishaps, and miscommunications at work, which erodes trust. 

Tip: Effective communication means open, honest, and frequent communication. Over-communicate if you must. This includes encouraging feedback, praising, giving constructive feedback, and actively listening to teammates’ concerns and ideas.

Inconsistent behavior: When leaders or colleagues behave inconsistently or unpredictably, it can lead to confusion and undermine trust.
Tip: To build trust, all coworkers, and leaders in particular, need to lead by example. Consistency in your actions and decisions, and modelling the behavior you expect from others, are all key. This also encompasses only making commitments you can keep, as well as avoiding overextending yourself or over-accommodating. 

Broken promises: Failing to deliver on promises, whether they're related to work assignments or perhaps promotions, can damage trust. 
Tip: If you can't meet a deadline or a promise, communicate that as soon as possible. This often comes up with email; let's say you get a message from colleague about a shared project and you don't respond in a timely way. That person is left wondering, "Did you get my email? Can I trust you for your help in completing this work?" Even if you can't get to it today, it’s important to acknowledge the message and let the other person know that your plate is full this week and you’ll get back to them next week with a response. 

Micromanagement: Micromanaging others, whether you’re in a leadership role or not, suggests that there's a lack of trust in their abilities, which can be demoralizing.
Tip: Focus on empowering others to work autonomously and delegating. If you’re a leader, be clear about what your expectations and goals are, but trust that your employees can handle their responsibilities and provide them with the opportunity to make decisions. Being a leader also means being a teacher, so rather than supplying people with answers, focus on offering support and guidance. 

Lack of transparency: Keeping information secret can lead to suspicion and a lack of trust. 
Tip: Being transparent requires us to share information openly, especially about why important decisions were made that can affect employees. It’s important to determine and communicate “your why.” This helps others understand what's going on underneath your decisions and communications. 

Office politics: Whether there's favoritism or hidden agendas, all those things can create an environment where trust is difficult to establish. 
Tip: Avoid making accusations or being confrontational. Instead, express your perspective and ask for clarification on anything that is unclear. If there's a conflict, address it promptly and fairly by encouraging open dialogue, but be prepared to mediate when necessary to resolve any kind of dispute.

Inequity or biases: If there's an unfair treatment or discrimination or biases in the office, whether conscious or unconscious, that can particularly affect an erosion of trust.
Tip: Making an effort to recognize and address your own biases, conscious or unconscious, will help create an inclusive workplace where all employees feel valued and treated fairly, regardless of their background. You can always consult with friends, coworkers, or mentors to get their opinions on your actions and attitudes. If you’re a leader,  you can recognize people by providing opportunities for skill development; this also demonstrates that you care about the employee and want to see them grow in their role. 

Fostering trust in the workplace produces many positives. To point to just two that stand out in today’s environment, let’s focus on innovation and job satisfaction. In an environment of trust, employees are more likely to take risks and explore innovative solutions without fear of blame or retribution. This can lead to huge creative breakthroughs and adaptability to change. And finally, employees who trust their colleagues and feel trusted themselves are probably more satisfied with their jobs, which will increase retention rates and reduce turnover.

Carolyn Stern is a speaker, trainer, author, and professor with the School of Business at Capilano University, where she pioneered the integration of emotional intelligence into Capilano’s curriculum. An EI and leadership development expert, Carolyn combines real-world experience as both a business leader with more than two decades as a trainer and educator.