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workplace trust
7 Min Read

6 Actionable Ways to Build Trust in the Workplace

Genevieve Michaels

The Oxford English dictionary defines trust as “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” Trust is the glue that holds our relationships together — between friends and family members, but also in professional settings. 

To get things done at work, we need to collaborate. That’s simply not possible unless people can depend on each other. We must be able to predict how our colleagues will act — and that they’ll act ethically.

In the workplace, trust starts with leaders. Those at the top must model a culture based on trust and psychological safety. 

In this article, we’ll share six actionable ways to do just that. 

Why we need trust in the workplace

In great workplaces, people trust each other. Recent research revealed trust as the only precursor for good employee experience for which there were no exceptions — ever. 

That makes sense, because to do our best work, we need to feel safe. We must be able to experiment, try new things, and ask for help when we need it. 

When Laura says she’ll have the report to you by Monday, do you believe her — or do you feel the need to make a contingency plan in case she doesn’t come through? 

If you’re a manager, do your reports feel anxious before every one-on-one — or do they know you have their best interests at heart? 

Without trust, there’s no innovation, because innovation takes risk. People do not come up with bold, disruptive ideas when they’re worried about looking silly, losing out on a promotion, or facing retaliation from others. Instead, they’re spending their time and energy worrying about potential negative outcomes they can’t control.

These statements aren’t just highly intuitive — they’re backed up by data. Trusting workplaces produce better financial outcomes, and they’re correlated with less stress, lower turnover, faster decision-making, and an overall better employee experience. 

6 ways to build workplace trust 

Trust isn’t about silly exercises where coworkers fall backwards and catch each other. It’s about foundational, structural change that makes people feel cared for, heard, and respected. 

As we mentioned, trust starts at the top. Each of these ideas is geared towards leaders, and how they can build a culture of trust that will naturally lead to trust between individuals. 

1. Match actions to words

The essence of trust is being true to your word. 

That’s important on an individual level — for example, meeting deadlines and arriving on time. But it’s even more crucial on a macro, leadership level.

Does everyone at your company see leaders as living by their values?  Do managers, leaders, and executives actually do the things they say they will do? 

Empty promises are a recipe for resentment. Mission statements, diversity goals, and fair workplace policies are actively harmful unless people see them translated into concrete action. 

Trust starts with leaders. Unless those at the top establish this strong foundation, there’s no way to build a trusting organizational culture.

2. Open communication

In a trusting workplace, no one should be guessing at what goes on behind the scenes. 

Leaders should promote an open flow of information. Ideally, that includes transparency around salaries, company financials, and strategic plans for the future. 

On an individual level, that also means everyone — from interns to executives — has the freedom to admit when they need help, admit when they make mistakes, and admit what they don’t know. Employees won’t feel safe asking for help or admitting their mistakes unless they see other people, including those above them, modeling that behavior and not being penalized.

Feedback is another important part of open communication. No one should ever have to wonder how they’re doing, or how their work was received. Make providing feedback an integral part of regular workflows, so people always know where they’re excelling and how they can improve. 

Acknowledge emotions

One of the most powerful ways to build trust with others is to hold space for their emotions, by directly asking them how they’re feeling. 

When you check in with people, it shows them you care enough to put in extra effort. And mutual reciprocated effort is what strengthens social relationships.  

That’s true in or out of the workplace. But this strategy can be especially powerful in professional settings, where it’s the norm to ignore or downplay difficult emotions. 

If someone on your team seems upset, or even particularly happy, ask them about it — just be sure you have the capacity to talk through whatever comes up! You could say something like “you seem upset, did something happen on your commute?” or “let’s check in for a minute, I can see you’re a bit shaken up.”

If talking about feelings with your team seems intimidating, soften your statement by phrasing it as a question. Even a simple “how are you feeling?” can go a long way. 

Inclusive team-building

When teammates know one another as people, it’s easier to build trust — as long as everyone’s included. 

Team-building activities, whether it’s a weeklong retreat or a 20-minute check-in, show people they can bring their full selves to the workplace (within reason) and be accepted. That helps everyone relax, feel safe, and focus on doing great work, rather than projecting a professional image. 

However, leaders must take care to make sure everyone is equally included. It’s natural for some people to be closer than others, and there’s nothing wrong with real friendships developing out of the workplace. 

But when cliques form, it erodes trust. People may feel excluded, question their colleagues’ motivations, or worried they’ll be passed up for opportunities.

Respectful rules and policies 

How could you trust someone who doesn’t respect you? It sounds obvious — but reasonable, respectful policies are the foundation of a trusting workplace. 

Creating a respectful workplace means: 

  • Respecting people’s time and boundaries, with policies around vacation time, work-life balance, and after-hours communication
  • Respecting peoples’ identity, with policies that ensure your workplace is safe and comfortable for people of any race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation
  • Respecting peoples’ contributions, with policies that recognize and reward people for their hard work (financially and otherwise) 

When leaders invest time and energy into making their workforce feel respected, it will pay dividends as people show up more fully for their work, the company, and one another. 

Fairness and equal opportunity 

Does everyone have the same chance to succeed at your organization? 

People won’t be motivated to do their best work unless they trust it will help them move forward. 

If employees find out they’re being paid less than a colleague for similar work, or they see their manager’s close friend be promoted, that will damage trust at your organization. 

Prioritize pay transparency and equity, and make sure standards around hiring, promotions, and bonuses are clear and consistently followed. 

Improving diversity and inclusion at the senior leadership level can also show employees it’s their performance that matters — not who they are or where they come from. 

Trust through transparency, at every organizational level

15Five facilitates a consistent sharing of feedback and information, at every level of your organization. 

  • 15Five Engage helps you stay in touch with employees, and deeply understand their experience and how to improve it
  • 15Five Perform gives managers a consistent, fair, and standardized way to track, report on, and improve their teams performance, over time
  • 15Five Focus keeps teams on a clear path to achieving critical goals
  • 15Five Transform provides coaching and improves performance where it has the highest impact — with managers

Every 15Five product builds a culture of trust by promoting communication in a fair, open, and honest way, making sure no one is ever in the dark about where they stand or how things are going at your company. 

Delve into the benefits of our entire platform by booking a 15Five demo today.