Six Ways to Build Trust and Three Ways to Break It


Esther Derby has been thinking about trust in the workplace a lot lately, and the absence of trust, too. When she asks people what it's like to work in a group where people trust their managers, they tell her information flows freely, conflict is productive, and that they can tell their managers what they think without fear of retribution. On the other hand, when trust is absent, people hide information, look out for themselves, don't bring up new ideas, and withhold effort.

Some managers seem to know instinctively how to create trust. But I doubt that managers in low trust groups set out to destroy trust. I suspect that they have learned some bad habits and have some assumptions that subtly (or not so subtly) communicate lack of trust.

So, what can you as a manager do to create an environment of trust? The first way to build trust with the people who report to you is to demonstrate that you trust them.

Demonstrating trust includes both the absence and presence of behavior. Here are six actions you can take to build trust: 

  1. Be transparent. Share relevant information with the group. Let them know what you know about organizational priorities, decisions, and goals. When you make decisions that affect the group, tell them what your thought process was and the factors you considered. If you ask for the group's input into a decision, and tell them how you will use the information they provide and how that input affected your final decision.
  2. Let people know where you stand. Tell your group what a successful performance looks like from your perspective. Also, tell the team how your boss will judge your success. That provides context for your actions and decisions and will help people see how they can help you.
  3. Be consistent. You don't have to treat everyone the same, because people are not the same. But, you do need to treat people equitably and consistently. If your favorite protégé breaks the build and then leaves for a two-hour lunch, treat him the same way you would if he were your least favorite person on the team and did the same thing. (Or better yet, give direct and respectful feedback that doesn't let people off the hook whether it's your favorite or not.)
  4. Consult with the team before you make commitments on behalf of the team. When your boss asks you to deliver a project by a certain date, don't automatically agree. Learn as much as you can about the project, and then tell your boss that you need to discuss the new project with your team before you give a definite answer. Promise only what you can—that you will look at the impacts and alternatives with the people who will actually do the work-and report the best options available to your boss.
  5. Seek feedback from the group. Somehow, we've come to believe that feedback only flows downhill. Vice presidents give feedback to directors, directors give feedback to managers, and so on, all the way down the hierarchy. But managers need feedback from their groups, as well, to understand how they are performing their jobs. I don't mean once-a-year, sanitized, 360-degree, review-type feedback. I mean direct information from the people who rely on you to create an atmosphere where they can be successful. (For more guidance on how to gather feedback from your group, see A Manager's Guide to Getting Feedback.) Seeking feedback shows that you value the group's perceptions and want to provide them what they need to do their jobs.
  6. Keep your commitments. Just as you expect team members to do what they say they'll do, they expect you to follow through when you say you'll take action. Of course, sometimes it's not possible or feasible to follow through, and reasonable people don't expect perfection. If you find you cannot follow through on a commitment, tell the team and renegotiate the commitment if appropriate.<--pagebreak-->

I'm going to assume that you never engage in abusive behavior, insults, intimidation, or physical threats, all of which torpedo trust and create fear, and should never be tolerated in the workplace. But, there are some widespread management behaviors that are counterproductive and destroy trust. Below are three actions you'll want to avoid: 

  1. Withhold feedback. If you observe behavior or results that are not what you expect, tell the person immediately, or this very week. Do not wait until the annual performance review cycle. Do not wait until you get around to it. Withholding feedback communicates that you are more interested in judging a person than in helping him or her succeed.
  2. Dismiss evidence of the team's capacity. I hope you are using some reliable way to assess the capacity of the group. I personally like velocity, a measure of how many points (an estimate of size and complexity for a piece of functionality) a group can complete in a given time box. Suppose the team is consistently completing ten to twelve points in a two-week iteration, There are six weeks until release date and the customer (or your boss) wants 300 points of functionality out the door in that release. One manager I met was in this situation. Rather than go to the customer and discuss what they could do to change the release date or release fewer features, he exhorted his team "You've got to try!" Well, they were trying, and the manager's response made him look like an idiot. The group didn't trust him to stand up for them or to create a situation where they could succeed. They felt set up and abused. No trust there.
  3. Micromanage. There are two aspects of micromanagement, both of which you should avoid. The first on is specifying exactly how something should be done when there's more than one way to do it. That communicates that you don't trust people's competence or judgment to find a reasonable approach on their own. The second aspect of micromanagement is incessant inquiry into status. I had a manager (briefly) who stopped by each desk several times a day to ask, "Are you done yet? What are you working on now? Do you need more work?" Clearly, he didn't believe that we'd actually work without his constant urging. He thought we'd slack off if he didn't ride us. In short, he communicated he didn't trust us. Of course, you do need to know what the status of work is-but there are better ways of obtaining that information than hounding and harassing people.

Obviously, there's more to creating the bonds of mutual respect and trust than I can cover in one, short column. However, if you consistently practice these six actions and avoid the three, you will be well on your way to creating a trusting atmosphere. When trust is present, you will have a conduit for accurate information because people won't be afraid to tell you what's really going on. When trust is present, people will be more creative because they won't be afraid to take reasonable risks and try novel solutions. When trust is present, the people in your group will work hard for you because they know you are working hard for them.

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