I just published the 11th episode of my podcast, Best Boss Ever, and I’m starting to see a pattern: the best, most influential leaders are also—necessarily—ones that we trust (and the ones that trust their employees).
You might be thinking, “Well, obviously Christine.” But I want you to take a second to think about everyone you know. Of all the employees at your company, who can you trust to fill in for you when you take a vacation or sick day? Of course, only some people will make the cut—but that doesn’t mean the rest of your team isn’t trustworthy or reliable.
Trust is what I call a “green” word. One of the exercises I’ll run in my workshops is to ask everyone what they think of when they hear the word “green.” For some it’ll be money, for others it’ll be environmentally friendly products. It’s the same with the word “trust.” It means different things to different people, and when applied in different situations.
Every professional knows that trust and teamwork go hand in hand. Mutual trust within the team framework is integral to high energy and engagement, while lack of trust causes us to inwardly disengage—meaning we withdraw sympathy, and are less likely to follow through on commitments or offer our best effort. This response isn’t even necessarily a conscious one, but is instead a natural means of self-preservation that happens without thinking. Needless to say, the presence (or absence) of trust is literally make or break for a team’s success.
The types of trust
In the same way that we subconsciously withdraw trust to protect ourselves, we’re also automatically inclined to trust—especially when we perceive ourselves as sharing a common goal or as part of a community. What’s interesting is that we trust different people in different ways, and hold each other to different expectations as a result.
Still, it feels especially bad when any kind of trust is damaged, sort of like if your friend donated the birthday gift you’d given them. (Ouch.) It’s my belief that most, if not all, workplace conflict can be traced back to lacking (or damaged) trust, but before we can talk about addressing those issues, we need to understand the two levels of trust at play.
This is a type of assumed trust that comes from shared communities. This is the base level of all relationships, where it is assumed that members of these groups will respect certain rules and cues to ensure smooth sailing. In the workplace, as people get used to a certain set of norms, this soon becomes “the culture” or what we trust will happen within this environment or community.
2. Interpersonal trust
This is a type of learned trust that comes with forming relationships, whether it be on a professional (knowledge-based) or personal (identity-based) level. It’s within this type of trust that all the other layers (honesty, dependability, fairness, etc.) exist.
Because interpersonal trust is so complex, it’s my opinion that this is the easiest type of trust to repair—but it’s also the easiest to break, without even realizing it. If you’re feeling some sort of tension at work, it’s this level you’ll want to examine.
I’ve spoken before about asking yourself poignant questions to peel back the layers of a problem in order to identify how to solve it. You’ll want to address any workplace issues by starting with the same routine. For example, you might have an employee that always submits stellar work on time, so of course you trust them to do so. But they’re also constantly arriving late to work. Because of this, you might not trust them to arrive on time to an important meeting. Clearly, the issue isn’t their timing, since they excel at it in certain situations. The issue might be their organizational skills (we’ve all been guilty of hitting that snooze button one too many times in the morning, some of us more than others), or they don’t have a reliable means of getting around. By asking yourself what you do and don’t trust your employee with (get specific!), you can more clearly pinpoint what conversations you need to have to strengthen your working relationship.
The reverse is also true. As leaders, we want our employees to trust us. (Wouldn’t it feel good to be somebody’s best boss?) If you’re feeling like there’s tension with an employee, ask yourself honestly what your employees should be able to trust you to do and not do. For example, you might be more than happy to stand up for the quality of their work in a tough meeting, but you’re not going to shield them from tough feedback from an important senior leader. By realizing where lines have been drawn, you can figure out where you might need to make changes, or be more flexible, to regain your employee’s trust.
Oftentimes, the strength of a relationship reflects the difference between what a person thinks they should be able to trust you with versus what they can actually trust you with.