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What's the best trust definition in the workplace?

Trust may be a small word, but it is incredibly complex. It means different things to different people. How we see trust is based on our life experiences, beliefs, values, the context we find ourselves in and our personality traits. 

When I ask a group of leaders what they believe trust means, I often receive responses ranging from “personal freedom”, “right intent”, “personal safety” right through to “a bubble or an environment that employees don’t want to break.”  These answers are right for some and wrong for others. What trust means or whether it is present varies greatly person to person.

This is why improving trust in a workplace can be difficult. Everyone has their own belief about what trust is.  The issue is that you can’t build trust if you don’t have a reference point for what it means to the organisation as a whole.

Through my work in organisations, what I have found is that it's important to align people in a team on one definition of trust that everyone can agree on.

The best definition that I have come up with so far and that I use in my latest book, TRUSTED TO THRIVE: How leaders create connected and accountable teams is:

Workplace trust definition

The essence of trust in a workplace environment is that everyone is able to rely on each other to make good on their promises.  This is in two different ways.

1. What People Do - Tasks

Every organisation consists of a complex network of strategic relationships that coordinate work through making promises to one another.  Even if we are talking about 10 or 10,000 employees, people need to rely on each other, in order to exchange information, ideas, services and goods.  

This requires clear communication and getting work done on time, to a high standard and within budget.

One of the biggest struggles in any enterprise is getting people and teams to trust each other to get work done right.   It’s one thing for other departments to submit work in on time to another department.  But it’s another thing altogether that the work is done to specification.   Departments are often guilty of submitting substandard work that wastes time for the receiving department who ends up with the burden of undertaking reworks and modifications.

Is it an issue? Yep.

Research by Harvard Business Review reported that only 9% of managers feel that they can rely on cross-functional colleagues all of the time, and only 50% say they can rely on them most of the time.  Managers also say they are three times more likely to miss performance commitments because of insufficient support from other units than because of their own team’s failure to deliver.

2. How People Work - Behaviours

Of course, the real elephant in the room isn't just getting work done well and in a timely manner.  It's how it's done that becomes the big issue that can cause a lot of undiscussed and hidden trust issues. 

We all need to feel that the people around us will do the right thing in terms of how they treat us.  Trust is judged by communication, interactions and behaviours of those around us.

Employees want to trust that their boss will:

  • answer their queries promptly,
  • assume that they have the right intention (rather than just to conclusions),
  • bat for them if they make a mistake/or have been mistreated,
  • provide them with the right resources and training to do well,
  • acknowledge or reward them for working hard/doing a great job,
  • tell them the truth about what's going on in the organisation,
  • treat them with respect,
  • consider them for other opportunities,
  • articulate a clear and exciting vision,
  • communicate directives clearly,
  • admit they made a mistake,
  • be interested in them as a human being.

Leaders also need to feel that they can depend upon their subordinates and that they will:

  • do the work promptly,
  • turn up on time,
  • treat customers well,
  • be focused on doing the work at high standards (and not slack off or pretend to be working),
  • not cheat on their timesheets,
  • treat them with respect,
  • not steal or fudge the numbers,
  • not mistreat co-workers,
  • communicate when they are confused/admit to needing help/made a mistake, and
  • be honest about work availability.

A Definition of Trust in the Workplace

It's one thing to be able to trust that people will do work right and not hurt people in the process. But it's another that you can predict rather accurately that people can be trusted. 

Knowing that you can rely on someone when you are not around to watch them is just as critical.  Not just for you - but for them. And that's where a lot of trust gets broken. When people don't feel trusted they are more likely to do the wrong thing as retribution for not being trusted.  It greats a vicious cycle of distrust that can be hard to fix.

At the same time, we also need to feel that people aren't going to react negatively to us. We can waste a lot of time fearing we will be told off if we have done something differently, said something out of context or made a mistake.

In organisations where trust is high, people are talking about it.   They have a trust framework that forms a common language on the dimensions of trust.  This helps individuals and teams understand, discuss and practise trust with one another.  It means employees have the language to call people out on behaviours that are destroying trust.

This trust definition can help you start to have an open discussion on trust. Share it with your team and ask:

  • How does the definition resonate with you?
  • When do you worry about trusting others in the organisation - is it with work tasks or is it with their behaviours?
  • When do you feel you can't rely on people on the team?  What about outside the team?
  • [LEADER] When is it hard to rely on me?
  • And when do you feel that you might not be reliable to the team?

When we all work towards supporting one another and fulfilling our promises - trust flourishes. And that's where magic happens.

If you want more tips to work with your team to build trust, grab a copy of my latest book, Trusted to Thrive: How leaders create connected and accountable teams.



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