Building trust at work

By May 7, 2019Advice

Why is trust such an essential ingredient at work? We’ve all been in conflicting situations where we’ve wished we could master the art of being seen as trustworthy. Whether it’s gaining trust over a colleague, willing to gain the trust of our subordinates or imposing a company culture that allows employees to speak up, trust is the basis of effective communication and productive conflicts. The reason trust is so important is because it underpins everything else we’re trying to accomplish in an effective team. But how can we build trust in the workplace? The strategy used will vary depending on the situation. Below I’ve written three different scenarios where trust can be built in different ways.

Winning trust over conflicting colleagues

It seems we’re always waiting for someone else to demonstrate they are trustworthy rather than doing the work ourselves to increase the other person’s trust in us. We look at trust as if it were a characteristic of the other person, when really, it’s something that goes on inside our own heads. We can give trust to someone the moment we meet them. Or adversely, we can feel sceptical and not trust someone who is behaving well with us. So, trust is a choice we make.

When trying to gain trust from a conflicting colleague, find areas where this colleague genuinely knows more than you do or has more experience and ask for some help. That’s one of the ways the other person can start to trust you more, which can lead to trust increasing trust. Usually, a conflicting colleague would be willing to share their expertise with you to show you how much more they know, so the request for help shouldn’t require a lot of effort from you. If you can find an area where you can ask their advice, something they can easily do, that’s a good starting point where their assistance might encourage them to trust you more.

But, as one of my clients recently put it, “It’s really hard to suck it up to someone you don’t like and don’t trust.” However, as soon as you look at it from a “sucking up” or manipulative perspective, it won’t work. Instead, just try to be honest with yourself and think about what this person is genuinely good at or what this person knows that you don’t know. Try to shift your thought pattern.

The second thing I’d suggest is to avoid any passive aggressive behaviour. No one appreciates that. If you have a conflict with a colleague, try to sort things out with your colleague before running to your boss as the victim, especially if you’re new in an organisation. Involving your manager too early on might leave the impression that you’re unable to deal with interpersonal issues yourself and that you’re the conflict generator, which will automatically lead to a trust loss on you. However, if after a few interactions with your colleague you still haven’t been successful in resolving the issue, then it might be legitimate to involve your manager. During the conversation with your manager, make sure to stick to the facts and not your interpretations of it. Also, don’t focus on your colleagues’ negative behaviour but rather the impact it’s having on your work. Explain what you’ve tried so far and ask your manager for coaching on how to deal with it.

Winning trust over older colleagues or subordinates

In one of my early jobs in my twenties, I had to deal with colleagues who were at least 10 years older than me, who all wanted to be paid for their perseverance and years of service, and saw me as if I hadn’t yet “paid my dues” to get promoted. But I wanted to be prised for my performance and what I had contributed. Some of you might flag this as a Millennial mentality, and whilst I agree that some of it might be a generational issue, a lot of it is about age and stage.

How can an ambitious young professional win trust among their older colleagues or subordinates? The first thing I’d suggest is to put your ambition into context. Don’t just think about when you want your next promotion by, but also what’s the right pace and tone for the whole team. You can be ambitious, but be ambitious in the context of being a great leader in the sense of being more diplomatic and careful with how you share your success to avoid others becoming defensive.

Young leaders should be mindful that some people will naturally feel very threatened and insecure by their success.  Therefore, understanding that your success can be hard for others to watch is crucial. In such situations, a little empathy can go a long way. Demonstrate confidence and warmth when trying to win trust from colleagues who aren’t willing to give it to you yet, by showing them that you care about their opinions. So, when communicating with your team, try to engage them, try to involve them, be assertive, slow down the tone and listen to them. For instance, instead of saying, “This is going to be a terrible experience for our existing customers”, try to ask their opinion and say, “How do you think this will be perceived by our existing customers?”; “What might be of concern with this type of approach?”; “What other option do we have?”.

No matter what generation we’re from, we all appreciate being valued. Going back to my first point, try to find places where you can ask your team members to add value to things that they know more about than you do. Another thing you can do is delegate more and share your power with your team. Because, as the organisational psychologist Liane Davey says, “When done well, delegation is the ultimate way of showing trust. It comes to say, ‘Hey, I have confidence in you, I trust you and want you to own this’.’ And the more you trust the other person, the more likely they are to trust you.”

Last but not least, a lot of great research comes to show that the simplest way of gaining trust is by finding similarities between individuals. That can be rather tricky when there’s a generational gap between co-workers, but one way of improving your relationship with your colleagues is by engaging in fun activities with them. One I particularly like to advise is going out for a team meal together. Research shows that eating together is one of the best ways of building trust among a group of people, so why not to take your team out for lunch or order some take-away into the office for a relaxed “lunch and learn” session? Remember that in order for you to succeed, you need to have a team that succeeds, too.

Making your company a trusting and respectful place

Unfortunately, there are still many companies where the culture is an archaic, “I say, you do” type of boys’ club, where leaders suck the self-esteem out of employees day in and day out. But we all know that as a company and a leader, you can attract better talent if you treat people better. Nevertheless, for those in a position of influence, how do you regain trust from your existing and new employees when you’re driving a cultural change within the organisation in order to make it more inclusive?

When trying to create change, instead of focusing on what’s wrong with the present, it’s more desirable to put the focus on the future, talking about what you’re looking for and what good looks like. In this way, you’ll avoid creating judgement and defensiveness. Secondly, try to link the change to something that’s happening outside of the organisation. So, instead of saying there’s something wrong with our people and our culture, and that we have to change it, it’s better to focus on an outside factor. You can put emphasis on how the industry is changing and how disrupters are changing customers’ expectations and because of those changes happening outside, the organisation needs to mirror and adapt. In this way, you’re making the reason for behavioural change external, which is far less intimidating to those who are used to the old ways of doing things.

Organisational change will inevitably foster anxiety in the team atmosphere, so it’s a situation that you’ll need to navigate carefully, both with the old school employees and the new. It’s also important to understand that change will not happen just from the top-down. Rather, we should all do our bit to turn the organisations we work for into a great place where colleagues trust each other and help people move forward together.

So, whatever great thing it is that you want to achieve at work, focus on building some trust first for a smoother path to success.

Lusine Magakian

Lusine Magakian is the Founder and Executive Coach of Fitin Skills. Lusine founded Fitin Skills 4 years ago, following a decade long career in banking. Her passion for coaching and helping others has always been an important part of her career and life. Lusine is also a qualified Performance Coach and an Organisational Psychologist. If you need help with interview preparation and/or career coaching sessions, please get in touch with Fitin Skills at We would love to hear from you.