How We Foster More Trust

I have coached my share of “bad boys” and “bad girls.”

Top executives whose strategic endeavors and interpersonal behaviors have persistently pissed people off.

The outcome of such behaviors is always the same. The individuals whose support they need to be successful – their peers and the members of their teams – do not trust them.

The moment folks stop trusting us, we’re on the perilous road to not getting anything done. Or, at best, pushing an increasingly heavy boulder up that mountain. Because in the absence of trust, work gets so much harder.

I was thinking about trust – AGAIN – as I contemplated a 2020 study by the Workforce Institute at UKG, one of the world’s leading providers of HR, payroll and workforce management technologies. The Workforce Institute’s research explored how nearly 4,000 employees and business leaders in 11 countries feel about the state of trust in their workplaces.

The Workforce Institute’s report, “Trust In the Modern Workplace,” is tellingly subtitled Why is trust still hard to find at work?

Here’s the data that grabbed my attention: 63% of all employees and business leaders worldwide stated that trust must be earned. 72% of all C-Suite executives stated it was so.

"I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on, I can’t believe you.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

This, then, is the implied trust paradigm: We hire a new employee because they are hopefully highly qualified. And yet, the majority of us are not sure that we are willing to trust that person. We demand they prove their trustworthiness to us.

This “prove to me I can trust you” mindset is all pervasive but varies by culture, according to the UKG study. It was true for 90% of the respondents from India, 68% from the USA, 50% from Germany, 37% from Mexico.

Is it just me, or does this trust paradigm seem totally backwards?

Here is the framework I find most helpful for understanding what we actually mean when we say I trust you, in a professional setting. Roger C. Mayer, Professor of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at NC State University, calls it an integrative model of organizational trust. It integrates 3 strands:

I trust you implies that I believe you have the necessary skills to do your job well. I believe that you are a person of integrity whose values are in large measure aligned with mine. And I see you as someone who is benevolent – by that I mean you genuinely care about the success of all you work with and the business in its entirety; you’re not merely seeking to climb the organizational ladder and advance your own fortunes.

Do a gut check. This makes sense, right?

Let us assume competence, for a moment. Let’s assume that we honor our commitments. Beyond these 2 c’s, how do we consistently behave in ways that foster deeper trust and unambiguously signal that we can be trusted? Trust signals are transmitted in nanoseconds. This is the tricky part: The specific behaviors can be learned. They will, however, always inhibit trust the moment they come across as fake or rehearsed.

Fake it ‘til you feel it doesn’t work when we seek to build trust.

Here are 4 of those behavioral trust signals. I think of them as Everyday Trust Builders.

4 Everyday Trust Builders

You speak the truth.

Truth is a loaded word, I know. I simply mean this: You have your own bullshit meter. You keep your crap in check. The platitudes. The easy responses. Yeah, they often sound good. And folks can tell when you’re running on automatic pilot. When there are things you can’t divulge, you don’t pretend to be transparent. You acknowledge that there are things you can’t talk about. You stay real even when you have to be strategic. That is speaking your truth.

You shut up.

You invite conversation. In conversation, you let others talk. You listen to the words they say. To the deeper meaning behind the words. You don’t fake-agree. You don’t fake-listen. You give evidence that you have listened AND understood. If you don’t understand, you ask for clarification. You engage with sincere curiosity.

You appreciate.

You appreciate folks at every organizational level. The attendant in the parking garage. The receptionist. The new hire. The accountant who is retiring after 30 years of service. The Head of the Board. Your competitor. Your appreciation doesn’t hide in your thoughts, it is actively expressed. It is expressed not with clichés and platitudes. Your every word and action explicitly show that you have noticed, and that your appreciation is heartfelt.

You are FULLY present.

That means you show up on time. Show up mentally prepared. Show up with heart and mind intact. You don’t pretend to not have feelings. Yes, you show up undiminished, as the whole person that you truly are, beyond the confines of your job function.

We don’t just remember our Everyday Trust Builders on a good day. We remember them on a tiring day, on a frustrating day, on the occasional day from hell. Yes, every day.

The data gathered in the Workforce Institute study makes it clear that there are hidden organizational costs when there is distrust.

Most people long to perform well at work and do the right thing. A palpable lack of trust will invariably inhibit job performance. 64% of all employees said that a climate of trust fostered their sense of belonging. 58% affirmed that it affected their career choices. And 55% stated that it affects their mental health.

You may not be able to affect the trust culture of your entire organization. But you can most certainly choose to foster trust, nanosecond by nanosecond

Be that person. Do it consistently. Do it well.

Related: The Nurse Lessons: Traits of the Exceptional Performers