Our research with global teams2 found that when we work in an environment that lacks trust we automatically slide into a selfish, defensive posture. With this negative mindset many people hoard knowledge and experience, using them as weapons for personal advantage, rather than sharing knowledge cooperatively for the good of the organisation. Knowledge truly is power—and any organisation that is hindered by low trust and poor collaboration will be at a significant competitive disadvantage.
A culture of distrust is more than a soft human resource issue. It is a hard, strategic business lever. In fact, organisations that foster a culture of high-trust will be best positioned to achieve positive business outcomes even in challenging, high stress environments.
Today, with our organisations full of autonomous dislocated teams it is more important than ever to place a priority on building a high trust culture. The result: higher engagement, more fun, deeper commitment, responsive agility, and increased measurable productivity.
Here are some essential priorities for developing a high-trust, high-performing team culture:
1. Ensure everyone feels safe and secure
Fear of retribution kills trust. Without emotional and physical safety people feel under the threat of punitive responses. When leaders are overbearing, bullying, belligerent, or petty a workplace becomes scary. Where there is the risk of embarrassment, ridicule or insult there is no opportunity for trust to flourish.
While most workplaces will quickly and proactively deal with physical danger—the verbal abuse of poor leadership that undermines psychological, emotional or spiritual safety is often ignored. The result: trust is destroyed and the workplace becomes toxic. These working conditions are not only unpleasant and unproductive, they are also hazardous to the health and wellbeing of everyone.
2. Ensure everyone feels valued and respected
Everyone needs to know that they are valued. We are constantly receiving information from society, family, friends that confirms to us whether we are significant and valuable. We are particularly sensitive to this from our leaders at work. If they don’t affirm our value it takes the energy from us and we doubt whether they care about what we contribute or who we are. Nothing disengages staff like feeling sidelined, left out, or undervalued.
Feeling valued and feeling respected go together. If I’m not respected, I can’t begin to feel valued. To be valued I need to know that my insights are heard, my concerns are taken into consideration, and my feelings are important. Everyone wants to know that they are treated with fairness and equity. When these things are left “up in the air” then it is impossible to build a culture of trust.
Simply put, we don’t trust people who treat us with disrespect. It is a sign we are not valued and cared for so we withhold our trust from them. It doesn’t matter what else a company does to build trust: if people feel they are not treated with respect and valued then trust will not exist.
3. Ensure everyone feels informed and understood
When our leaders go out of their way to keep us informed we feel valued. Being in-the-loop helps us make sense of what is going on. We all hate being left in the dark. Without information people try to make sense of what they don’t know and it is rarely positive. This uncertainty breeds anxiety and fear — the opposite of trust.
While we might think it is possible to over communicate, it is rarely the case. Our research3 shows that by far one of the greatest problems that destroys trust in times of change is under communication. How can people trust you if you don’t tell them what is going on and what it is happening?
Yes, when we communicate we will get questions. We may not like what some people say. But it is important that people feel that even if you disagree with them, they have been heard and understood. Nobody likes to be dismissed because they might disagree. Management decisions invariably disappoint some employees. But when a leader engages meaningfully, building rapport through listening and empathy the team feels that their views and feelings matter. People also are keenly aware of how others are treated knowing that this is how they will be treated if they have a diverse view.
A final thought — people need to know that you care
While trust grows slowly over time it can diminish quickly. This is why it is so important for the high performing leader to make it an absolute priority. To build trust requires real, honest conversations with our colleagues. The challenge is that to produce trust we will need to entrust ourselves to others. The honesty required to build trust requires openness and vulnerability.
This means a high performing leader will need courage, because trust isn’t about tips and tricks, it is about character. We are trusted most because of who we are, our way of being. It is built over many small and nuanced interactions with others to the extent that people just know that we care enough to watch out for them. After all, the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.
Our research4 also identified one other key thing about trust. Ranking near the top of every survey we conducted with teams around the world was one quality: employees want leaders who truly care for them. These are the people they will trust. Your team need to know that you care. If they don’t then they will always withhold trust. Trust must be modelled from those with the most power, who choose to be trustworthy.