The dynamics of trust in the workplace



The human. The communicator. The leader.

These are three roles that all require a level of trust.

We need to trust the people we have around us. We need to trust the messages we are receiving. We need to trust the people who lead us.

Sometimes there is a cross-over between roles and sometimes people play these roles separately – but, however we look at it, trust is important.

In the workplace, everyone benefits when there is a feeling of trust – relationships are better, teamwork improves, teams collaborate, and productivity is higher. A study in Harvard Business Review, by Paul J Zak found that people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout than people at low-trust companies.

So, we can see why it’s so important to get under the issue of trust in the workplace and explore what it means as a human, as a communicator and as a leader.

Trust and humans

Organisations are made up of people and they can’t exist without people. Tesco, Cadbury, Amazon – all have assets, buildings, and products, but without people there is no organisation.

And when we look at trust, we have to remember that the human brain is designed to keep us safe, not too far out of our comfort zone, in a reliable environment. We see threats in a lot of places when they aren’t there, and this means we can find it hard to trust people and places we don’t know. We are threatened when people don’t behave how we would expect them to, when they don’t look like us, when they think differently, or sound unfamiliar. Our brain tries to work out if this person will cause us harm. And if we’re not sure, we make up a story that is probably negative just to make sure we will be safe.

Think about when someone says to you, “trust me”. Do you blindly trust? Probably not, because that’s not how we work as humans. What it takes for me to trust you, and what it takes for you to trust me, are very different things.

Of course, there are different levels of trust. “I trust you with my life” is not necessarily always the case in most workplaces. It might be more along the lines of, “I trust you to keep me safe, to help me feel like I belong, that you’ll encourage my development and that you’ll pay me so that I can support my lifestyle.”

That’s why building trusted relationships – human to human – is key.

Trust and the communications team

If you trust the people who are conveying key messages to you, then you are more likely to believe and act on their advice. If we think back to the pandemic, we trusted bodies like the World Health Organization because it gave us credible advice, backed up by the very latest science. We can focus intently on the content and delivery of our messages, but if we aren’t trusted, none of it goes in.

Communicators in organisations have a key role when it comes to trust – they are advisors, there to make sure the leaders are aware of the impact of their words and behaviours and whether they are in harmony.

I listen intently to the language used by leaders to help them ensure they use the right words for their culture and the right words for the impact or outcome they are looking for. Phrases like “liquidate” when we’re talking about removing functions or restructuring organisations is one I recently suggested changing to ensure we were being more human at work.  

Trust and leaders

I once worked with a CEO who, after being extremely rude and swearing, told me, “I forget about the weight of my words in the position that I have.” Many of us will remember a comment made by someone in power that really affected us, because they are in a position of power over us.  

Power is incredibly important when it comes to trust. Leaders must recognise their power over others when it comes to communication. If we think about the leadership walkabout in an office – or the “royal visit” to a location away from head office – there is always an element of importance about the people coming. We can spend a lot of time trying to change this and make things equal, but the power relationship exists. We can’t ignore it, but we can ensure that our behaviours ensure we aren’t demonstrating that ‘power over’.

If your behaviour as a leader isn’t consistent and you don’t follow through on what you say you’re going to do, you won’t be able to build trusting relationships with your team and create an engaged workforce – no matter what your intention is.

Rebuilding trust – where should you start?

If you’re in an organisation where there are levels of distrust – big or small – change won’t happen overnight, but it’s critical to start building it. I share six tips to rebuilding trust in the workplace in How long does it take to rebuild trust?

In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M Covey says, “Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people. But it takes time and patience.” I share some of this thinking, and the behaviours needed to develop trust in this article – It’s not disengagement, it’s distrust.

If you’d like to understand more about the important role of trust in the workplace, here are three bite-sized (under 15 minutes) podcast episodes that cover the topic: Chaos to calm: Fear and trust S1 E5 | Chaos to calm: Rebuilding trust and credibility S2 E7 | Chaos to calm: How to rebuild trust S3 E4

There is more advice on how leaders can build trust in this article from Harvard Business Publishing – Good Leadership? It all starts with trust.

This blog is based on a talk that I did for Work Networks, hosted by Workplace from Meta. If you’re looking to solve trust issues in your leadership team and beyond, please get in touch…

Further reading:

The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters

Neuroscience for Organizational Change by Hilary Scarlett

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