Hint: It’s Not What You Think

I was doing a communication audit with a financial services firm. This included interviewing people about how information flowed and was blocked at work. Then I analyzed what people said: looking for patterns.

Whenever I do this, what stands out the most are the issues around trust.

What Is Trust?

The definition is a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”

But that’s not how we experience trust. Most of us turn trust into a feeling:

  • “He tells me the truth, even when it’s hard to do” (I appreciate his honesty)
  • “She has my back in a tough spot” (she makes me feel safe)
  • “They recognize my contribution” (they value me and what I do)

Why Should We Care?

There are plenty of statistics on the benefits of building trust with employees. smarp collected a bunch, including these:

  • Companies with high trust levels outperform those with low ones by 186%
  • Employees who trust their employers experience 74% less stress and 40% less burnout
  • When people have higher trust at work, they are 23% more likely to offer more ideas and solutions

Going Small Versus Big

You can find lots of multi-stage programs to help you reshape your culture into one that promotes trust. And spend big bucks to do it.

I say, let’s start small. How about not doing the things that make your people feel they can’t trust you?

One of the results of the audit I mentioned was that “sharing ideas through emails isn’t safe.” Leaders encouraged employees to say “no” when another team member asked them to do something that wasn’t their responsibility—and to let leaders know when this happened.

Initially, employees would send an email alerting a leader when this occurred. To their horror, the leader forwarded their email to the offending team member, with a rebuke.

“I have to work with these people!” a professional told me. “I don’t want to be known as a tattle tale. Now I do what they ask—even though it’s not my job—and keep my mouth shut. And I never send anything remotely negative in an email, because you never know who will see it.”

As this kind of behavior spread, leaders weren’t getting any more emails. They thought that meant their intervention had solved the problem …

What Are You Doing to Break Trust?

According to zenbusiness, 90% of employees say they feel the results of eroded trust every day. That most often shows up as little betrayals. Here are some common ones.

Reacting hastily under pressure: We have a bad day and take our stress out on someone else, out of proportion to the situation. Or we make a “ball-out call” only to later get more information that shows we were wrong.

Gossiping: We complain or tell stories about our people to others in the organization. Chances are good this will get back to them. And the distortions that get added are likely to make what they hear even worse.

Finger pointing: This is what happened with those forwarded emails. But there also are times when most of us choose to blame others when our team fell short—especially if we think they were really responsible.

Taking credit for someone else’s ideas or efforts: Maybe we embellished something a bit with our own spin and then passed it along—so it wasn’t a total steal. We all know how it feels to see someone else rewarded when it should have been us.

Acting without thinking: We want to cross something off our to-do list, then don’t take the time to consider the best way to do it. Or we communicate in a way that feels comfortable for us but pushes the other person’s buttons—like a long email detailing their failings.

Stop It! And Start This Instead

It’s time for two check-in questions.

One: What can I do to build trust in this moment? It’s a line I often use on myself: “When you’re in a hurry, slow down.” Of all the options we have for action, which one will show people we’re trustworthy? Take a minute to consider this, then make the best choice.

Two: Do I need to rebuild trust with someone? Have we screwed up and need to make amends? Then it’s time for us to give a power apology.

The most important idea is awareness. Know that one of your jobs as a leader is to make it easy for others to trust you. This doesn’t require grand gestures as much as avoiding the little things that lead people to question your motives. Be as trustworthy as you are when imagining the best version of yourself. Then watch everyone benefit.