Whom Do You Trust? Building Trust at Work

by Nancy Ordman

The trust fall is a classic trust-building exercise: one person turns their back on one or more people and falls backward, into the waiting arms of their colleagues. Does one successful trust fall resolve the faller’s doubts that the catcher is trustworthy?

No. Trust between colleagues builds over time through an accumulation of small satisfactory interactions that demonstrate competence, reliability, honesty, integrity and other such qualities through repeated interactions. Continual contact provides the opportunity to see how others behave in different kinds of situations; observing this behavior, particularly in situations where two people disagree, provides information that can enhance or detract from one person’s trust in another.

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and LinkedIn influencer, reframes the question people often ask themselves when deciding whether they trust a teammate at work. He says not to ask whether you like a person but whether you can count on this person. Likable people are not always reliable or competent. Conversely, some curmudgeonly people can always be trusted to come through for colleagues when necessary.

Various writers about trust recommend proactively giving trust to a colleague. This sounds counter-intuitive; why leave oneself vulnerable before one knows that a given person will follow through? No one is credulous enough to give a junior colleague responsibility for managing a highly visible project. The key is to start small and increase the responsibility level gradually. Set the recipient up for success; maintain communication so they can trust that they can ask for help when needed. Accountability builds trust.

Accountability encompasses all of the qualities of trust listed in the second paragraph. A colleague who fails to deliver a report by an agreed-upon deadline risks being labeled as unreliable at a minimum. Perhaps this colleague has a reason for running behind: data from another department was late, or a family emergency slowed them down. In a situation like one of these, honesty – delivering the uncomfortable truth that the report will not be ready by the deadline – is a far better path to take than waiting until deadline day to share the bad news. Providing regular progress reports, including problems that cause delays, is an even better course of action.

Several ways to demonstrate trustworthiness depend on good communication between and among colleagues. What constitutes good communication? Whatever the medium – email, print, or voice – the message should be clear and complete. When asking a question, provide enough information to ensure that the receiver understands how to provide a clear and complete answer. Respond to, or at least acknowledge, email and phone calls promptly. When discussing a project or debating a decision, be honest, direct, and civil. Listening to others carefully is as important as sending a message. Avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions and respond too quickly.

Another quality of good communication is predictability. Colleagues need to know that emails get prompt responses, that meeting minutes are distributed within a day of the meeting, and that progress reports always show up on the 15th of each month. One advantage of regularity is that an unexpected change to a colleague’s communication pattern could signal that they have a problem and might appreciate some help. For virtual teams, regular communications are critical since no one can count on bumping into a colleague in the break room for an informal chat. A study reported in Organization Science found that virtual teams with irregular communication patterns demonstrated lower levels of trust between colleagues.

Communication need not be confined to work-related topics; in fact, sharing some personal information with teammates is an important component of trust-building. Seeing colleagues as whole people, not just one-dimensional figures in the work landscape, helps individuals develop a deeper understanding that in turn enables communication that is more effective and tailored to the recipient. Some groups leave time at the end of a meeting for each person to say one thing about themselves, whether work-related or not. Each snippet of new information helps paint a more nuanced picture of a colleague.

Another type of trust, swift trust, comes into play for virtual teams and action teams – a group with a mission to finish a complex task quickly and effectively. Swift trust assumes that all individual members have a propensity to trust their colleagues, whether they are all strangers or some have existing relationships. The team as a whole decides to accept trust as a given and to verify the proposition over the course of the team’s project. Swift trust is fragile, but a team can reinforce this initial scaffolding with authentic trust built over time.

So whom do you trust? This article’s title refers to a television game show that ran from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, hosted by Johnny Carson. The show title was actually Who Do You Trust, which no doubt irritated every proofreader in the country. Answering that question in a work environment relies on personal experience built up over time, with the realization that trusting another person will always have an element of risk.