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The best ways to build trust in the workplace

Written 22 July, 2019, 5 minutes to read

Few things destroy company culture faster than lack of trust. When people feel distrusted, it breeds an atmosphere of unease and resentment, eroding loyalty and satisfaction and significantly increasing employee turnover too. The importance of building trust in the workplace can’t be overstated – and in fact, research suggests that trusting, open workplaces perform better, too. So how can you develop a team and a company that’s built on trust?

The benefits of trust at work

The first thing to consider when looking to cultivate a trusting workplace is that trust can take many forms. Trust is, of course, about being honest and genuine – about looking out for each other and not going behind people’s backs – but it also goes deeper than that. Trust is multi-faceted, and the idea of psychological safety and trust illustrates the scope of this issue.

Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, first identified the concept of psychological safety. Edmonson’s research found that the better a team worked, the more mistakes they reported making. While this may seem incongruous, it really isn’t: strong teams are simply more able to be honest with each other. It isn’t that they actually make more mistakes, it’s that they’re able to report them openly and trustingly, without fear of retribution or judgment.

Edmonson found that the most successful teams had something in common: they were all able to give candid feedback, admit their mistakes, and learn from one other. Following the publication of Edmonson’s paper Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, further research cemented the idea that psychological safety doesn’t just boost the performance of teams – it can actually enhance entire organizations too.

So how can we develop this type of trust in our own workplaces? There are several ways to build, and maintain an open, trusting culture... but some are more powerful and pervasive. The following three approaches are an essential place to start.

Allow employees to manage themselves

For employees, few things cripple trust more than an overbearing boss – who feel the need to constantly monitor what you’re doing or check up on you. In contrast, studies show that when people are trusted to work remotely, productivity actually goes up – and significantly, too. Being trusted as the master of your own work instils a sense of goodwill and faith in employees – and they then want to return the favor, to prove that your trust wasn’t misplaced.

If remote working really isn’t something that can work for your company – at least not all the time – consider offering flexible working opportunities. When employees are allowed to work where and when they see best, they’ll work harder and can create the best conditions for their work. Respect, like trust, goes both ways.

See the tools you need make “remote” work

Respect employee space and privacy

Respecting employees also extends to the tools and practices your company uses to manage their performance and collaboration. Hyper connectivity and smart tech make it easier than ever to pull together and draw insights from employee data. More companies are collecting data on their employees or using activity tracking tools to monitor things like project budget spend, share team progress and balance resources.

But while your motivations for using that data may be good, you can’t enter into employee tracking lightly. Employees need assurance that their data will be used responsibly, and understand how they themselves will benefit from its collection. We’ve pulled together a few thoughts on how to use employee data responsibly here.

You also need to choose tracking tools that actively protect employee privacy. It’s something we’re extremely sensitive to at Timely, which is why our time tracker is based on a model of employee consent – all tracked data is recorded to an individual’s private timeline and they choose what they want to share with other team members. It means people feel secure and comfortable using the tool, which ultimately is the only way tracking with trust can work.

Trial employee-led time tracking free with your team

Level authority

Edmonson’s research on psychological safety found that the best teams were able to admit their mistakes and be honest – and this particularly applies to figures of authority. Managers shouldn’t try to portray themselves as infallible – it’s in everybody’s interest that they seem human: imperfect and approachable. Even the best, most successful people have faults and weakness, and accepting this openly is a strength. Trying to pretend you don’t have flaws is the flaw.

Good leadership also relies on connection. How can you inspire people if they don’t feel connected to you? Concealing your vulnerabilities in an attempt to seem strong can work to make you appear weak – and hiding your mistakes in order to appear correct all the time is just plain disingenuous!

Being able to ask for help is a crucial part of good leadership). People feel most inspired when they feel needed – when someone trusts them enough to ask for help. Embracing your vulnerabilities strengthens connections, and ultimately trust.

Create a feedback culture

Open communication is essential for building trust, and one way to achieve this is by giving frank, thoughtful feedback. Employees should feel comfortable enough to voice their opinions and ideas, to have input in company decisions – to feel like their views actually matter. Feedback is essential for improving and succeeding, and being able to give insightful feedback that helps people grow is a great way to fortify bonds and reinforce trust.

Give honest, straightforward and (this is important!) compassionate feedback... but always frame it in a way that’s positive: it’s about how the other person can get even better, not so much about what they did wrong. On that note, if you do need to criticize, criticize the behavior or the action – never the person themselves. That way, employees will know you have their best interests at heart – that you’re telling them this because you care and want them to improve.

Since it’s important for authority figures to be vulnerable in certain ways, your feedback culture should have a two-way dialogue; bosses and managers should ask more junior members of staff for feedback. This not only shows companies where they need to improve, but by showing you genuinely value the opinions of your employees, you’re proving that they matter – that you’re invested, that you trust them.

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