How to build trust in your workplace: the ultimate guide

Anna Roberts

Apr 2017 ⋅ 9 min read

Trust in the workplace comes in many different forms. It varies from trusting the CEO to steer the company back into the black or trusting your colleague to make your tea with one sugar instead of two.

While one of these scenarios has higher stakes than the other, it’s important for trust to be present between individuals and teams at every level of the business.

In this article, we’ll talk about three different types of trust in the workplace.

  • Employer-employee trust. Do employers, managers and supervisors trust employees?
  • Employee-employer trust. Do employees trust senior managers?
  • Employee-employee trust. Do employees trust their colleagues?

Part One: Employer-Employee Trust

top down shot of office worker

Some managers might claim to trust their employees completely - at least in work-related matters! Other managers might not deem their staff quite so trustworthy - perhaps as a result of previous bad experiences…

Still, whatever the workplace, you should strive to build trust between managers and employees.

Why is it important for employers to trust employees?

If managers can trust their employees to work independently, it reduces the need for micromanagement and monitoring and frees up time for more important management tasks.

If you trust your employees to complete tasks properly, you’ll give them the freedom to approach these tasks from different angles. Maybe they’ll find better, more efficient ways to do their work. They’ll also be braver when voicing new ideas or making suggestions that might just benefit your business.

You’ll also unlock remote and flexible working opportunities if you can trust your employees to work at their best even while away from their desk.

Overall, trusting employees helps you build a cooperative company culture - instead of a fear-filled environment. If employees know that you trust them, they’ll be happier and more productive in the long run.

Do you trust your employees?

Now let’s look at the current state of employer-employee trust at your company. You might be certain about whether or not you trust your employees, but can you be sure if other managers feel the same about the employees in their teams?

Consider the following:

  • Management styles during busy and stressful periods
  • What happens when an important project (with a deadline) is assigned
  • Your response to employees who want to work remotely
  • Whether or not you restrict internet use

Of course, trust isn’t the only factor that affects your company policies and how you respond to the above situations, but it’s undeniably a contributor.

We’re not suggesting that it’s essential to have complete trust in every single employee that you hire - after all, some employees might have shown you that they’re not to be trusted!

If that’s the case, then work to find a balance. Relax restrictions on internet use if employees have stayed on task. Gradually start trusting employees with larger tasks, projects and responsibilities.

How to build employer-employee trust

It’s easy enough to destroy trust, but building it is another matter entirely.

Ideally, trust-building at work starts during the recruitment process. When hiring, set aside a few questions at the interview that relate to trust, such as:

  • Can you give an example of a project you worked on independently? Was it successful?
  • Have you worked remotely before? How does it impact your productivity?
  • What’s your preferred management style?
  • What would your previous boss say about you?

These questions paint a picture of an employee’s preferred working environment and look at any previous experience of working remotely and/or independently. If you know that an employee excels when working away from the office, you’ll find it easier to trust them to do the same in the future.

The next crucial step is during training and onboarding. To trust employees to do their job, you need to give them the knowledge and resources to do so. Training should, therefore, be thorough enough for you to feel confident that the employee can excel in their role with minimal further training or supervision.

You also need to pinpoint the source of your management team’s distrust of employees. Previous experience often comes into play here, but is it fair to distrust employees based on one incident from years ago?

Let’s consider internet use again. Say you were forced to place restrictions on internet usage because employees kept Facebooking at work. You know that if you lift these restrictions, the same thing will happen again.

However, think about the root cause of this problem. Are your employees procrastinating because they’re bored? Do they not have enough work to do, or is their work so tedious that they need to avoid it to stay awake?

By tackling the fundamental issue that’s causing the procrastination problem, your internet restrictions might no longer be required.

Of course, trust works both ways...

Part Two: Employee-Employer Trust

businessman drinking coffee

During your first job, did you trust your employer to…

a) Run the business (or your team) effectively?
b) Make the right decisions on a day-to-day basis?
c) Provide effective leadership?
d) Pay you on time?

In all likelihood, you didn’t have total confidence in your manager and employer. Your current employees are probably in the same situation.

Let’s turn to the role that employee-employer trust plays in your business.

Why is it important to have the trust of employees?

If employees can’t trust you to lead, they’ll lose confidence in the company as a whole. They’ll be less loyal to the company, develop a negative attitude at work, and generally be less productive.

Employees who don’t trust you won’t be the positive brand advocates that you want them to be. They might even dissuade family and friends from applying to work at the company, or from doing business with you.

You’ll also lose the confidence of employees when making significant business decisions. Instead of being excited by the launch of a new product or a shift in direction, employees will be cynical and negative. You won’t be able to count on their enthusiasm.

Do your employees trust you?

You might have some idea whether or not specific employees and teams trust you, but if you ask them directly, you’re unlikely to get an honest answer! If you want to find out the truth, here’s how to do it.

  • Anonymous employee surveys. You can use Google Forms or specialist software to send out the surveys. Ask questions about specific aspects of trust (competency, integrity, decision making) and find out if certain managers are a problem.
  • Consider how frequently employees come to you with their problems. Do they delay speaking to you about an issue at work until the last possible moment, or are they willing to approach you before a critical point is reached?
  • Pinpoint any instances where employees have tried to cover up mistakes instead of being honest.
  • If and how employees talk about your brand, or their job, on social media. Are they negative or positive?

Remember: even if employees trust you in one area of management, they might not have confidence in other aspects of your management.

How to build employee-employer trust

Dozens of factors contribute to employee-employer trust.

A study from the Institute of Leadership and Management [PDF] found that openness was the top driver of employee-employer trust, followed by effective communication, decision-making, integrity and competence.

More research from Edelman found that employees trust leaders who take responsible actions to address a crisis, treat employees well, exhibit ethical behaviours, listen to customer feedback, and place customers ahead of profits.

You need to identify which of these ‘drivers of trust’ you’re struggling with.

Next, you need to work out how to resolve your specific problems. Here are some solid starting points for each of these issues:

  • Openness. Use a company intranet, regular emails or a Slack channel to share company-wide news and announcements. You should also be open about any big changes or decisions that are on the horizon.
  • Communication. Use communication channels consistently. Set clear expectations for any given task or project, and communicate any changes clearly. Move away from long email chains and use chat software like Google Hangouts or Slack.
  • Decision-making. This one’s trickier to fix. Making better decisions is easier said than done! It is important, however, to be transparent about the reasons behind a decision and the impact it will have.
  • Competency. If you are good at your job but employees don’t see it that way, get stuck in. Make more of an effort to help out on the front line, and at your regular team meetings explain what you’ve been up to as well as expecting employees to do the same.
  • Integrity and ethics. No-one likes working for a boss who has no moral compass. Look at your brand values, and stand by them. Whenever you make a decision, think about how it reflects on your brand. Own up to mistakes, and apologise.
  • Action during a crisis. Act calmly even when times are tough. Provide clear leadership during a crisis, and don’t blame others if something doesn’t work out.
  • Treat employees well. Be fair to employees, and show empathy. Don’t view employees as a drain on the business, but as an asset.
  • Treat customers well. Be respectful of customers even when you aren’t speaking to them directly! Focus on providing customers with the best service, instead of eking out as much money as you can from them.

All of these remedies will take time to implement and take effect - but remember that one setback will nullify all your efforts.

There’s one more type of workplace trust left to talk about.

Part Three: Employee-Employee Trust

employees working at desk

Trust between employees varies hugely. Some employees would count their colleagues as their best friends, while others don’t trust their colleagues to keep their hands off their lunch in the office fridge…

The importance of trust between colleagues

Employees who trust each other work well together. Trust means that employees will share knowledge instead of hoarding it - leading to a more effective workforce. If employees can trust their colleagues to help them out when necessary, the skills and time of a team can be used more efficiently.

Trust is the cement that keeps friendships together. Office friendships improve employee retention, morale, attendance and engagement.

A work environment where distrust is the norm leads to isolation and stress as employees never know what information to share and what they need to keep to themselves.

In the end, trust between employees creates stronger bonds at work - to the benefit of individual employees, their team, and the wider business.

Do employees trust each other?

This question isn’t easy to answer! Trust will vary significantly between teams and individuals, but you can assess the trust of specific groups by answering the following questions:

  • Do they tend to work independently or as a team?
  • Do they frequently ask each other for help or ideas?
  • Do they make use of shared folders and chat channels?
  • Are there 'cliques' within each team? Are any employees isolated?

You can also include questions about colleagues in an employee engagement survey.

How can you encourage employees to trust each other?

As you might expect, it’s extremely difficult to build trust between employees - especially if it’s been shattered before. Neither are you in a position to ‘force’ employees to trust each other. It just doesn’t work like that!

You can, however, encourage activities and actions that build trust.

Team building exercises are an obvious starting point but aren't the answer for every team. Think about the most suitable team building activities for your teams, and how they might be received by staff.

Other approaches centre on making small changes to the work environment, company policies and management style.

Set expectations about lateness, sharing the burden of refreshment rounds, and office gossip. Encourage teamwork by assigning tasks to groups instead of individuals. Don’t single out individuals for blame. Ask teams to review projects together (even if some staff weren’t involved in them) to discuss what went wrong and what worked.

If necessary, identify any problem employees who frequently undermine trust between colleagues. You should discipline staff who continually play office politics to the detriment of the team.

Final thoughts

Trust in the workplace is complex and multifaceted. Figuring out the source of your company’s trust problem is the first step to resolving it. Whatever approach you choose, it’ll take time for your changes to have a real impact on trust at your business - and to measure that impact.

But don't give up: the benefits of building trust are vast.

What's the state of trust at your business? Let us know your experience of trust in the workplace in the comments below.