Why workplace trust matters, and why now?

Consider the way work gets done now versus 30 years ago. There has been a marked shift towards more cross-functional and collaborative working. We all need to make quick decisions and to work at pace in line with substantive changes to organisational cultures.Employees are being asked to work across different teams, often with members geographically dispersed – perhaps with different first languages and cultures. Then there’s the leaders heading up such project teams, who need to engender and promote trust often while not directly overseeing their direct reports or ever being in the same room as them! And all of this is before we even consider the impact of the pandemic…ONS figures suggest that around 25% of the UK working population are doing their jobs exclusively from home right now. Naturally, this means a very different dynamic for those operating as part of teams, and the managers who lead those teams. And trust is fundamental on several levels –

  1. the trust people have for their peers
  2. the trust we have in our manager or senior leaders
  3. the trust leaders have in their teams when none of us have any physical interactions.

What is the impact of trust (or a lack of trust) at work?

So, how big a problem is workplace trust? According to EY, less than half of global professionals trust their employer, boss or colleagues. That is a damning and concerning indictment and it is inevitably affecting productivity and performance levels.One of the most compelling statistics on the impact of workplace trust comes from the “Speed of Trust” book, which reveals that:

“High-trust organisations return 3x the total return to shareholders than those with low trust.”

Furthermore, where a high trust culture exists, research shows that:

workplace-trust-hbr stats

What kind of trust do you need?

Before setting out to improve trust in your own business or team, it’s important you first have clarity about your current organisational context. How much trust currently exists in your organisation and why?Perhaps most people trust one another, but do not trust management. It could be that leaders are trusted on almost everything other than compensation. Or it could be there’s an endemic lack of trust because people are not culturally encouraged to be their authentic selves and, as a result, no one really knows each other (meaning real trust cannot exist).Once you know this, the next step is to understand what type of trust you want and need to build. What does that mean? Well, trust comes in many forms, such as:

  • The trust to take risks in a way where I won’t be torn down if I make a mistake. That type of trust requires freedom and the extinction of micro-management
  • The trust to be authentic in a way where I won’t be gossiped about if, for example, I decide to wear makeup as a man, or I don’t hide my cultural roots. That type of trust takes empathy, and the absence of judgment
  • The trust that if, I work from home, I won’t be tracked and traced every step of the day. That type of trust requires an adult-adult relationship, not a parent-child relationship.
“You can define the type of workplace trust in broadly one of two camps – ‘practical’ or ‘emotional’.”

Practical trust

This can be earned by being a steadfast worker; you meet commitments, show up on time, and do what you say you’ll do. People rely on your competence and dependability. They trust you to get the job done.This trust is fundamental. If you don’t have it, your team is facing big problems. It can lead to a lack of communication, knowledge hoarding, micro-management, duplication of work, missed deadlines, and poor productivity.

Emotional trust

This type of trust is next level. And it’s what elevates teamwork in the workplace too. It’s when people trust that you’re on their side. They know you’ll treat them kindly and respectfully, that you won’t judge them for their setbacks, and they’re comfortable telling you their honest thoughts, feelings, and ideas.Naturally this type of trust is far more complex. It goes beyond hard work and respecting other people’s time; it requires a certain level of emotional intelligence. The good news is, even if you don’t think you have this as an innate skill, it can be learnt.

How to assess trust: the Trust equation

You can use the trust equation to assess why people may not trust you, and why you may not trust others. This equation was created by Harvard professors David Maister, Robert Galford and Charles Green and introduced in their book 'The Trusted Advisor'. It looks more complicated than it is, so stick with me…

trust equation

T = Trust (the willingness or ability to rely on others)C = Perception of Credibility (trusting what someone says)R = Perception of Reliability (trusting what someone does)I = Intimacy (entrusting someone with something)SO = Perception of Self-Orientation (self-awareness and focus, i.e. whether your focus

How to build workplace trust

I spoke with Benjamin Western, Founder of Showing Up and an expert in this area to get his thoughts on how to build trust in the workplace.He used the trust equation as a blueprint, looking at each of the four topics and has set out three tips on how to improve them.


Tell the truth

This is fundamental. And, while incredibly obvious, it is surprisingly easy to lapse from. What about when your colleague asks if you followed up with that email you totally forgot about? You could lie, say yes, and do it that very moment. Or, you could admit that you totally forgot but will do it now.It may hurt your Reliability rating but getting found out would ruin both your Credibility and Reliability. Not worth it.

Admit when you don’t know something

If you don’t know the answer or you don’t remember the solution, just say so. Not only will this allow you to learn and grow, but you won’t be considered a fake who’s wasting people’s time with lies.

Admit when you’re wrong

Someone who’s never wrong is highly irritating. How can I trust someone if they have so little self-awareness, they won’t consider the fact they’re wrong, or they feel they have to hide it? If you truly believe you’re right, ask the other person to explain further. You simply might not have the big picture.


If you say you’ll do it, do it

If you cancel at the last minute, fail to show up, or a miss a deadline, people will instantly wonder if you’ll do it again. You’ve planted that seed. If you make a habit of it, then people will learn that this is your normal behaviour and will instinctively not trust you to follow through with commitments.

If you’re meant to do it, do it

This basically means, if you’re meant to do something as part of your role, do it. Don’t let it slip onto someone else’s plate or avoid doing it. Not only does this frustrate people, it suggests you’re not fully committed. People won’t trust that you can (or will) do your job.

Explain your thought process

If you’re transparent—if you communicate your intentions and reasons for doing something—you’re giving people a window into who you are. You’re giving them a basis for trusting what you do because they can understand why you’re doing it.


Extend trust to others

If you want people to trust you with their honest insights, extend an olive branch. Share with them first. You’ll often have to give trust to get it.

Include others

In some instances, people are happy to share but they feel like they need to be asked. They don’t want to impose, but if they’re invited to participate (in a brainstorming session, a review, or personal conversation) they may be keen to. You’ll get people to share more and trust you more, if you ask.

Watch your reactions

If you scoff, dismiss, or laugh at someone else’s idea or contribution, you’ll potentially ruin your chances of trust. If people don’t feel safe being honest around you, they’ll clam up. Stand in someone else’s shoes, try to understand their perspective, and measure your reactions to how sensitive they are.


Reducing Self Orientation is about self-awareness and using it. It’s remembering that everyone else is just as important as you are. They have a purpose and they have a voice. By listening to that voice you’ll empower them to share and trust. Among other things, this is key to interpersonal relationships, innovation, and progress.

Give others a chance to talk

Fundamentally, if you don’t invite others to talk—if you dominate conversation or never ask questions—you’re signalling that you don’t really care about what others have to say. In short, it suggests you don’t value them.If you ask people questions, it has the opposite effect. It gives them a chance to enter a two-way relationship, to feel respected, and to have the ability to share and trust.

Listen with intent

It’s no good asking questions for the sake of it. Perhaps worse than people who don’t ask questions are those who ask but don’t listen to the answer. It’s lip service. It makes the person feel like their opinions have been totally disregarded. After a while, they won’t contribute at all. They don’t trust you’ll listen.When you’re in a conversation, don’t just wait for your chance to talk. Seriously regard what the other person had to say, consider it, and maybe even ask another question. People will engage with you (and start to trust you) if they feel like you’re truly listening.Before you feel like you must ‘chip in’ on a conversation, consider this: will it add value? If not, you’re just doing it to be heard.

Take responsibility for failures

When something goes wrong and you’re partially to blame, the human reaction is often to shift the blame to others. Not only will this ruin the trust between you and the people you’re blaming, but it reduces your ability to establish trust with most people who hear it. No-one trusts a blamer because you don’t know what they’re saying behind your back.Conversely, if you take responsibility for your part in failures, people see that you have integrity. You’re honest and transparent, which people can get on board with.

(My) Last word on trust

Trust is an essential building block for a creating an open, inclusive and productive workplace. And it also has the power to radically improve the employee experience. Hopefully the Trust Equation and these tips provide you with some useful ideas on how to move towards a more collaborative and trusting environment.Please let us know if you have any questions on engendering greater trust or developing your own skills!