The absence of trust in the workplace can be debilitating and, if left unaddressed, will lead to a toxic environment characterized by high turnover, infighting, lack of accountability and commitment, poor performance, and burnout. Establishing trust is one of leadership’s fundamental tasks, but managers must be able to acknowledge their role in contributing to a dysfunctional culture as well.
The Importance of Trust
To trust someone is to be confident you can rely on their character, ability, strength, or truth to the extent that you would put yourself at risk based on your belief in them. Trust is essential to effective teamwork because it provides a sense of safety. When people feel safe, they are more willing to take risks creating and innovating.
In dysfunctional teams, however, team members spend their time and energy protecting themselves, too scared to expose themselves to colleagues and managers looking for someone to blame. Research has shown that teams that lacked trust communicated and shared knowledge significantly less than trusting teams.
- Don’t Place Blame
In his best-selling business book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins studied the behaviors of more than a thousand organizations over 40 years to learn how good companies turned into great ones. Collins identifies Level 5 leadership as a defining characteristic of the 11 companies that jumped from good to great. He found that Level 5 leaders had a unique combination of will and humility. This is manifested by a consistent willingness to share praise with the team when things go well yet take the blame when things go wrong. Leaders who do this create a safe workspace and develop extreme loyalty in their team members.
Mistakes are inevitable in fast-paced, innovative industries, and creating a finger-pointing culture lowers morale and trust. Instead, use mistakes as learning opportunities. Let those involved “celebrate” mistakes by sharing their learnings with their colleagues and engaging in constructive discussions of alternative ways to move forward. Set the example by sharing your own mistakes openly in this fashion.
- Engage with Each Other as Human Beings
Encouraging team members to bond personally can be a highly effective way to build trust. If people see each other as individuals with shared values and experiences, it’s easier for them to collaborate. For example, situations that allow members to share stories about their families, interests, and backgrounds can be rewarding if handled sensitively. Psychometric instruments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment can also help team members understand how each other’s approaches and insights can be different but equally valid.
Leaders can start by sharing their own stories, but they have an additional responsibility: they must respond to what they learn about their team members. Because once you know people as individuals, to treat everyone the same is akin to disrespect. This could mean engaging with extrovert team members face-to-face but with introverts via email, for example.
- Communicate Goals, Directions, and Expectations
Once organizations reach a specific size, it becomes impossible for founders, or later the executives, to be involved intimately in all operations. At this point, teams and leaders are established. One vital part of leadership involves sharing with the higher-ups information about the team’s activities. However, leaders can easily fall into the trap of focusing so much on reporting to senior management that they forget the flipside of the equation—the amplification of messaging from the executive.
Leaders must communicate senior management’s goals, directions, and expectations to their teams. For example, team members must understand how their contributions are impacted by changing business needs. Understanding why certain business decisions have been made by senior management will help employees make educated decisions about their future activities. Without the appropriate level of exposure, employees will lose sight of their ability to impact the organization and, consequently, become disengaged. The implication that they’re not trusted or respected enough to be given information, in turn, creates a barrier to them trusting leadership.
In contrast, taking time to align employees’ duties and tasks with the organization’s broader goals allows team members to feel like a valued part of the business’ success. When people feel they can make a difference to the business, they will.
- Talk about Trust
Finally, it’s essential to have discussions about the state of trust in your organization. Creating a safe space for employees to share concerns about the workplace culture allows leadership to address or prevent toxicity from building up. Leadership and well-being coach Charles Feltman says, “Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.” Employees need to be able to talk about their concerns—big or small—without fear of retribution.