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Column: How Much Can You Really Trust Your Colleagues?

Trust is key to success in the workplace — but it takes a strong leader to build it.

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As a performance management expert, I am often called in to work with a CEO and their executives to help them function better as a team. In many of these cases, my initial assessment reveals a disconnect between team members created by a lack of trust. Like in any relationship, trust is imperative for a healthy, productive environment.

But can you really trust your colleagues — and should you?

The honest and ugly truth is there are probably people you work with you don’t or shouldn’t trust. That’s why building trust among your teams and leadership is an essential part of any businesses’ success.  However, I have found that without a strong leader committed to intentionally creating a work environment that promotes trust, it is impossible to achieve. Strong leadership is the main ingredient in high performing teams.

Conversely, if trust is not developed, the results can be disastrous. When distrust is pervasive, studies have shown employees enjoy work less and are less engaged. This leads to diminished productivity and high turnover, which can be incredibly costly to a company. When colleagues trust each other and their leaders, however, the synergy can be truly powerful.

Trust is earned, not given. Weak leadership lends itself to distrust and can result in lasting damage to a team and a company. Understanding the psychology behind trust and the necessary behaviors to creating a trusting environment is essential to improving performance.

How to Build Trust in Your Leadership and Company

There are, generally speaking, two different types of people when it comes to trusting — those who trust you until you prove they shouldn’t, and those that don’t trust you until you prove that they should. You will likely have both of those types of people on your team so it’s best to assume you need to “prove” yourself from the start. How? According to the Trust Project at Northwestern University, in order to trust someone, people must believe a leader possesses the following three traits:

Competence: People must believe a leader is capable of getting the job done — and done right.  

Honesty: People must believe a leader is telling the truth, that they keep their promises and they are reliable, no matter what challenges arise.

Benevolence: People must believe a leader has their best interests at heart, and is truly working for the team, not themselves.

In order to build trust, leaders must work on all three of these competencies. It seems simple — managing people’s expectations and being transparent should be easy, right? Any leader knows that it’s not. In today’s corporate world some information must be kept confidential, like a merger or layoffs. This is why most leaders today put most of their focus into competence and give short shrift to honesty and benevolence. But that’s not the right path.

The ability to keep information hidden AND retain trust comes from developing “trust currency” early on in a leadership tenure. If you build trust currency, employees will understand and give you grace when you legitimately can’t tell them something. Building that trust currency requires building the previously mentioned competencies. People are looking for predictability, consistency and accountability. Demonstrate your knowledge and ability in your role. Be consistent — if you say you’ll be at a meeting at 9 a.m., show up on time and don’t spend the meeting looking at your phone. Hold yourself accountable the same way you would hold your employees accountable.

And finally, make decisions that are for the team and the company, not for yourself. Conversely, leaders must communicate clearly what they want from their team. Employees must know what is expected of them. Paranoia and distrust thrive in an information vacuum. I have seen too many weak leaders who avoid conflict, stab people in the back, judge people, aren’t transparent, and don’t state their opinion on what they really want out of the team. Is it at all surprising these leaders garner the least trust? Building and maintaining trust isn’t easy. But it might just be the most important thing you can do for your company.  





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