How to Build Trust in the Workplace - Sage B. Hobbs

Learning how to build trust in the workplace is critical to finding success as an employee, principal, teacher, or leader. 

Regardless of whether you work at a company, educational institution, or non-profit organization, a high level of trust creates a more positive employee experience and leads to a more productive workplace where people feel safe and respected.

Unfortunately, trust is not a growing trend in U.S. workplaces and beyond. According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of people trust each other less than 40 years ago.

There are a number of reasons for why this could be. Perhaps it’s because we were never explicitly taught how to build trust in our families, through our education, or once we entered the workplace. Yet, learning how to trust is something we’re expected to know how to do, and do well, as we develop in our careers and lives. 

But if we can learn to cultivate trust and grow our own trustworthiness, we can improve this important skill and use it in our careers and in our professional relationships. Without trust, it’s nearly impossible to build meaningful relationships or lead effective teams, schools, or organizations.. 

Whether you build trust in the workplace between individuals or in teams, you want to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and helping one another out. Where they are willing to take more innovative risks. Where each person is valued for their contributions and has the opportunity to succeed.

What does trust look like in the workplace?

If you work at a company, educational institution, or organization where leaders have made it a priority to build trust in the workplace, you likely:

  • Possess a sense of security and confidence when interacting with colleagues or your boss
  • Can reasonably predict how your colleagues and leaders will act and react in specific workplace situations and depend on them to collaborate with and support you
  • Experience how levels of credibility—both those of your colleagues and workplace leaders as well as you own—have built up over time

In contrast, if your workplace does not value trust, it’s possible you’ve witnessed these scenarios:

  • A boss or manager who micromanages you and your colleagues
  • Coworkers who are unwilling to collaborate
  • A workplace culture that lacks warmth and a distinct personality

In the workplace, two types of trust must be integrated:

Practical Trust—This is what usually comes to mind when we think about workplace trust. This trust is earned through hard work, showing up on time, and getting work done on deadline—regardless of whether you are an employee or a manager.

Emotional Trust—You create this type of trust in the workplace by having deep emotional intelligence and forming meaningful bonds with your team. You treat each other with respect and feel comfortable sharing ideas, thoughts, and feelings. You build this type of trust through networking and relationship building.

What’s the connection between trust and communication?

It’s nearly impossible to build trust in the workplace without communication—especially communication that is curious, clear, compassionate, and courageous.

Trust is created through consistent actions, empathy, and effective communication. You can promote an understanding, trusting workplace environment by being transparent about your intentions, sharing relevant information, and addressing concerns or issues promptly. 

But it isn’t just during meetings and presentations or when dealing with conflict that communication helps to establish trust. Even the mundane or informal communications you participate in each day—for example, emails, chats, requests for help or information, or conversations where you give or receive support and guidance—establish trust by forming connections and finding common ground. 

Effective communication in the workplace boosts employee morale, engagement, productivity, and satisfaction. Communication is also key for better team collaboration and cooperation. 

Ultimately, effective workplace communication helps drive better results for individuals, teams, and organizations. As a leader, an effective communicator motivates their team to get more done with better results and fewer misunderstandings. 

All of this can contribute to your company, educational institution, or organization’s success — and to your own personal success as an employee or leader.

At the same time, miscommunication can easily damage trust. In order to ensure that doesn’t occur in your workplace, you can:

  • Express yourself and your beliefs in a way that doesn’t leave room for misinterpretation
  • Ask questions to clarify if you aren’t sure about something
  • Make sure that you give others a chance to talk. Listening is just as important as speaking for effective communication

How does trust build relationships—and why are relationships the epicenter of your professional success?

If you build trust in the workplace, members of teams will work better together, share thoughts and feelings, and feel secure in their environment. In other words, they will build lasting relationships with one another. 

Interpersonal challenges and conflicts naturally arise at work, but if you build trust in the workplace and relationships between colleagues develop, you will improve problem-solving and comfort, as well as productivity and overall performance.

Professional success is directly related to the quality of your relationships.

Humans are not meant to work in isolation, but in collaboration and connection. Building relationships at work is proven to grow individual productivity, boost morale, build knowledge, inspire creativity, and improve overall wellbeing. 

As you grow in your career, effective leadership that focuses on positive outcomes has to include the ability to build meaningful relationships, and trust and communication are key to unlocking thriving relationships, communities, schools, and organizations.

Both trust and relationship building require long-term thinking. One key tactic if you are faced with a difficult decision at work is to think about how your decisions will affect your trust and relationships with your colleagues in the future. That kind of forward thinking can build trust in the workplace and grow your professional relationships.

What are the best ways to build trust in the workplace?

To build trust in the workplace, you need to take specific action. It won’t happen automatically. Here are some important trust-building habits to cultivate.

  • Value honesty
  • It goes without saying that you should always tell the truth, even if it’s awkward. No matter what your level of management, honesty is one of the most integral qualities of being a trusted colleague. As a manager, consider highlighting incidents of honesty when they occur within your team. 
  • Communicate effectively
  • Miscommunication easily damages attempts to build trust in the workplace. Try your best to communicate in a way that doesn’t leave room for misinterpretation. If you aren’t sure about something during a conversation, ask questions to clarify. 

Listening is just as important as speaking for effective communication. Make sure that you give others a chance to talk, which demonstrates that you care about others’ opinions.

  • Honor your commitments
  • A trustworthy person does everything in their power to stick to agreements they’ve made. If you make a promise, follow through on it and avoid making promises that you might not be able to keep.
  • Admit when you’re wrong
  • Being vulnerable enough to admit fault can humanize you, which can help to build trust in the workplace. If you do something wrong, it’s best to just be upfront about it. If you realize you were incorrect about something, own up to it.

What are the barriers to trust in the workplace?

When you consider how to build trust in the workplace, here are a few common barriers that you may encounter:

1. A Lack of Transparency

When leaders are not transparent about the decisions they make, they leave the door open for employees to answer their own questions about the direction of the organization. Unfortunately, sometimes employees fill communication gaps with fear, which can make it difficult to build trust in the workplace.

2. Ineffective Communication

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, the most common skill that employees say managers can improve upon is communication. Managers who lack effective communication skills often undermanage their teams and put off important conversations.

In order to build trust in the workplace, organizational leaders can build their managers’ emotional intelligence so they can gain the confidence to have necessary conversations, no matter how difficult, that move their organization’s forward.

3. Psychologically Unsafe Environments

To build trust in the workplace, employees should feel able to share what’s on their mind without fear of judgment or retaliation. A psychologically safe environment is one where open dialogue can authentically occur. 

Too frequently, workplace conversations involve employees cutting one another off or showcasing the need to be right vs. respecting one another’s differences of opinion. 

Organizations that have built trust reward candor and vulnerability while also encouraging tact in the process. They also are places where leaders have cultural awareness and seek to understand multiple perspectives and lived experiences.

How can you build trust as a leader?

Educational, business, and community leaders can create team cohesion, foster cultures of safety and belonging, and make more positive impact if they strengthen their communication, amplify their emotional intelligence, and build trust. 

When leaders fail to build trust in the workplace, they may notice that their employees have lower performance engagement at work or that employee retention declines. 

To promote a trusting workplace where all employees feel supported and safe to speak up and protect their wellbeing, ensure that you and your managers create an honest, transparent, and supportive working environment. Participating in outside training can add valuable perspective and a customized plan to do so.

Leaders build trust in the workplace by maintaining respectful and inclusive communication, creating comfort in honesty and vulnerability, and offering opportunities for independence. Building trust is an ongoing but vital process that can promote good leadership, improve professional relationships, and create overall career satisfaction.

Ready to take the next step?

Sage Hobbs is a Colorado-based author, speaker, coach, and podcast host who shows educational, business, and community leaders and teams how to create positive relationships and organizational cultures that ensure greater success and satisfaction. 

She helps to develop relationship and mission-driven leaders who foster trust and collaboration,  build engaged organizations with effective teams, and make a positive social impact on their broader communities.

Learn more about how to work with Sage here.