Teams function best when there’s a high level of trust among the members. Building trust in the workplace requires buy-in from each individual on the team. However, trust on a team starts with the manager. Managers can model trust by demonstrating vulnerability and setting clear expectations.
Trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.
Both managers and individual team members can use the methods below to engage in trust-building.
10 strategies for building trust in the workplace
#1. Share personal stories
Stories are enticing ways to share information and create empathy. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni suggests sharing personal histories. Sharing personal stories is a big part of building trust in the workplace. Stories make it easy for us to find our commonalities and arouse our curiosity about each other. Stories engage us with the storyteller.
Don’t ignore the power of personal connections. These make it easier to ask for and accept help, to initiate hard discussions, and to keep energy and enthusiasm high.
By arranging opportunities for the team to meet in person or in their own virtual space, you’re reminding the team that time spent building or restoring trust is time well spent. After all, there has to be a relationship before there can be a trusting relationship.
Action: Team sharing
Each team member shares a story about their first job, their favorite teacher, a skill, or a life lesson they had to struggle to achieve. The subject should be an experience we’ve all had in one shape or another.
Action: Make space for storytelling
The manager should make opportunities for storytelling and relationship building. These might be over a meal, during meeting breaks, or by establishing a shared working space. If your team is remote, you’ll have to be more intentional about creating this space. It could be a Slack channel for sharing photos from the weekend or new podcasts or recipes people have been enjoying. It could be as simple as ending a meeting with an activity such as everyone recommending their favorite book or productivity app for their phone. Add personal check-ins along with your project-based ones. Welcome personal stories into your business spaces.
Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.
#2. Discuss values
What you value and what the team values will shape its performance. Shared values aid in building trust in the workplace. It’s much easier to engage in conflict if you know you share the same values or respect the other person’s values. People who show that they act in ways consistent with their professed values gain in perceived trustworthiness.
Action: Communicate your values and your team’s
Discuss your values, the values you see expressed by the team, and your organization’s values. A few examples are making a difference, delivering quality, consistently ranking first, meeting deadlines, helping others, showing respect, being accountable, and getting challenging assignments. Schedule times to discuss how the team has been displaying these values and what the group could do better.
#3. Act on your values
People in authority can be good at insisting that they espouse values such as fair treatment, transparency of decisions and budgets, and promotion and hiring in accordance with high standards, and yet their actions show something very different. Employees and staff will eventually look beyond words to make their judgments.
Good managers establish what Patrick Lencioni calls predictive trust—you’ll do what you say you’ll do. To really build trust, managers need to move beyond predictive trust to vulnerability-based trust, meaning they need to be open and honest with others. Think about your values: How much are you motivated by a desire for power or influence? What type of leader do you want to be? Are your actions grounded in your values?
A 360-degree review can help leaders see their blind spots and show them how their team views their actions.
Trust is built over time and can easily be lost. It takes consistent work and it pays off with teams that are committed to each other and energized by their work together.
Trust is not built in big, sweeping moments. It’s built in tiny moments every day.
#4. Share expectations
Your shared values will shape your expectations. If everyone can agree to the norms, then everyone knows whether they or others are complying. A shared understanding of expectations provides a foundation for building trust in the workplace.
Action: Define team norms
Each member speaks briefly about behaviors they feel contribute to group health and those that don’t. Work together to define your team norms and ground rules. Be sure to cover issues such as uses of technology, means of communication, and methods of addressing problems. Some discussion questions:
- Are open laptops acceptable during a meeting?
- Does everyone agree to update task status in a shared productivity tool?
- How will meetings be called?
- Will everyone be expected to voice their opinions?
- How will we communicate if there’s a crisis?
- Do people agree to ask for help and admit mistakes?
- How will we communicate questions about the project?
- How will we alert others if we can’t complete a task or there is a delay?
- Are people comfortable celebrating after work hours?
- Is it OK to brag or show excitement about something we’ve just accomplished?
- How will we address time zone differences?
- How will we show our commitment to our project?
- How will we hold each other accountable?
- How will we offer feedback to each other?
- How will team members who work from the office keep those outside the office in the loop of general office news?
#5. Understand power roles and where you fit in
University of Cologne psychologist Joris Lammers has shown that a person’s honesty depends on that person’s feeling of power. Higher feelings of power correlate with less concern about the long-term consequences of being untrustworthy. We’ve probably all intuited these findings and feel at least a slight distrust of authority.
It’s also important that teams know where the final authority lies. If this is clear, conflicts and confusion over approvals or direction can be avoided. Is leadership fluid throughout the project, based on who is most knowledgeable about each step or deliverable on the project? Is there an outside sponsor of your team who has ultimate responsibility and authority? Is leadership part of the team or outside the team? When, where, and how will the leader, or person with authority, be involved? Leaders can make it easier to trust them by helping the team understand their leadership role on the team.
Action: Discuss power roles
Discuss how power is given and used by members of the group. What are the differences in power (perceived and real) in this team? How will you as a manager demonstrate you are worthy of trust in your position of power? Talk about which aspects of a project individual contributors have authority over, and which are the realm of higher-ups.
#6. Confront problems
Nothing builds trust in the workplace like using teamwork to overcome an obstacle. A team is more likely to meet a challenge if they first know how to confront conflict and challenges within the team. Holding each other accountable is made easier after aligning to common values and set expectations. Many people are familiar with the phases of teams as forming, storming, and norming. You have to find ways to make use of the storming periods.
Action: Start a team dialogue about conflict
Answer these questions. Where does our team fall on the conflict continuum? How have we confronted internal and external challenges in the past? What worked and what did not? How will we recognize and acknowledge both productive and disruptive behaviors on the team? What are the consequences of violating team trust?
#7. Show appreciation
We all feel good when our contributions, perspectives, or personalities are appreciated. Expressing appreciation is also beneficial for the giver. Research shows that expressing gratitude builds trust and closer bonds between the giver and receiver of thanks, and the people who witness the act of gratitude.
If a manager trusts their team, they’ll back them up on their journey and take pride in their successes. They’ll acknowledge individual efforts and the team. Show your team that you don’t take them for granted and that you won’t take all the credit for team results.
Take care in how you notice and assign credit for work. Often, whoever speaks most confidently, loudly, or persistently about an idea or result gets more credit for it. This tendency can overlook introverts, women, and people from less individualist cultures—even when they’re the ones who contributed most to the project’s success. Managers who consistently reward the wrong person can reduce the amount of trust on the team.
Action: Make a plan for regular appreciation
The manager can actively set out to ensure everyone on the team is recognized and appreciated. It can be as simple as agreeing with a comment or showing interest in someone’s ideas. It can be as specific as a public thank-you. Some teams regularly go around the table and state one thing they appreciate about each team member. Others have a Slack channel devoted to praising each other.
“It’s been my experience that the people who gain trust, loyalty, excitement, and energy fast are the ones who pass on the credit to the people who have really done the work.”
#8. Accept responsibility for errors and admit mistakes
If your team is hiding mistakes or weaknesses from each other and from you, you know you have a trust problem. You also likely have a performance problem, as these cover-ups often lead to stalled-out projects or redoing work.
Managers demonstrate they are worthy of trust when they follow a fair process and hear from all sides, admitting that they don’t have the facts, experience, and knowledge that the entire team has. A leader with vulnerabilities is stronger than one who insists on having none.
Action: Make it OK for people to admit mistakes
Set a team norm that accepts acknowledgment of failures or limitations and makes it OK to ask for assistance. Model this by admitting your own mistakes and by apologizing or fixing the issue. Then instigate discussions with your team about how you all will create a space of trust where people can admit mistakes.
#9. Trust your team
It’s hard to gain the trust of your employees if they can tell that you don’t trust them. Managers are responsible for their teams. If the team fails, so will they. This can trigger a desire to micromanage to ensure success, but micromanagement is a strong signal of distrust.
Managers should check in with employees rather than check up on them, providing information, guidance, feedback, mentorship, support, and necessary resources. This should be done individually and as a group. The leader models how to ask for and respond to feedback.
Do you trust your team? If not, why not, and what can you do about it? If you do trust them, make your expectations clear and then step back and allow team members to take their own paths. Allow them to learn from failures.
Action: Demonstrate trust
There are many ways managers can demonstrate trust in their team. Consider:
- Delegating responsibility
- Encouraging employees to share honest thoughts
- Providing opportunities for growth
- Allowing flexible work arrangements
- Involving your team in decision-making
- Encouraging calculated risk-taking
- Providing resources rather than hoarding them
“As a leader, it’s up to you to adapt to the people you have the privilege of leading.”
#10. Know yourself as a manager and leader
As Bill George writes in his book Discover Your True North, “As we have learned from working with many leaders, the hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.”
Employees are more likely to trust managers who are self-aware. When managers acknowledge their own imperfections, it creates a culture of honesty and authenticity. Managers need to understand their tendencies around communication, conflict, decision-making, and other management tasks. They need a realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses, and a plan for developing their soft skills. This can be achieved through personality tests, 360 assessments, coaching, and other tools.
Action: Model self-reflection
As a manager, you can model self-reflection and continuous improvement to your employees. This sets a positive example for the team and encourages a culture of learning and growth. As you work to deepen your self-awareness, consider discussing with your team what you are learning. You can share something like, “I understand that my natural aversion to conflict means that I have shut down some heated debates in the past that could have been productive for our team. Gaining comfort with productive conflict is one of the skills I’m developing this year.”
“Trust is the glue that holds people together and is the lubricant that keeps an organization moving forward.”
Building trust on virtual or remote teams
The suggestions above will benefit managers of both in-person and hybrid or remote teams. However, managers of hybrid or remote teams face unique barriers to trust-building. As more employees work remotely, how do managers build trust and a culture of accountability?
#1. Make thoughtful onboarding a priority
It’s important to onboard new team members by reviewing the “rules of engagement” the team has agreed upon, and to renegotiate them in light of new members.
We’re more likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt when we first meet them. So make use of this initial goodwill and build upon it. Provide time for sharing stories about each team member and about the team’s history and culture. Provide newcomers with a “User’s Guide to Me” or a “Manual of Me,” explaining how each member prefers to work. Promote a sense of “being in the same boat” as others on the team even if everyone arrived at the boat from different directions or at different times.
Team leaders and managers should ensure that all team members understand the team goals and how each of them can use their unique skills to contribute. A recent survey by Wiley Workplace Research found that only 38% of recently hired workers finished their onboarding experience with an understanding of what was expected of them. The job description provided to the new hire and the job description in team members’ minds should be aligned. Managers should know what the new hire was offered and how the job was presented and explained. Without knowing how their performance will be judged, new team members are more likely to see others as judges rather than collaborators, and trust will take longer to build.
#2. Acknowledge the awkward
Some of the conversations held about remote projects and virtual teamwork can feel awkward and forced, and that’s OK. It might seem like you’re wasting time going over assumptions about how and when to communicate. It might feel rude to ask someone publicly why a task hasn’t been completed. It might seem unnatural to directly state that you were hurt by a curt response to your email. You might feel vulnerable saying you won’t return phone calls or texts during the time you set aside for a medical treatment. But the team will benefit from this type of clarity.
Since remote teams don’t have the added information about someone that comes from being in the same room with them, communication needs to be even more precise. People need to be better about asking for clarification, assuming the best intent from others, and verifying assumptions. If we share an office, I can tell when you’re not feeling well and that I should wait until tomorrow to invite you into a collaboration space. If I’m working remotely, I have to rely on you to tell me that this is not a good time for you and that you do want to collaborate with me later.
Communication needs to be regularly scheduled. It’s so easy to not want to bother someone with a phone call or text, or decide to wait until you have more to report. It’s also easy to become untethered to the group without regular communication. If no one is talking with you about the project you’re working on, your commitment to it will suffer. There are numerous tools available to assist teams to stay in contact and to collaborate across distances. An important part of building trust in the workplace is finding the tools that work for your team.
Building trust in the workplace begins with managers and leaders
The manager of a team and the leader of the entire organization set the tone for a group’s culture and level of trust. A leader who doesn’t trust their team can discourage trust among the team members, too. Poor leadership habits, fears, and personal ambition can plant the seeds of distrust in groups. Research by Jon Maner, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management, asserts that some leaders “will intentionally sideline high-performing team members, limit communication and social bonding among team members, or compile ill-matched teams if they think it will help ensure their own place at the top.”
Building trust in the workplace involves vulnerability and vulnerability can be unsettling, uncomfortable, and scary. Personality assessments can make it easier to discuss issues of trust with your team. For example, it makes it easier for the team to understand that when Chad gives a one-word reply that’s just his style, but when Charlie does it, it might mean he’s upset or feeling rushed or pressured. It can make it easier to understand that Charlene isn’t dragging her feet because she’s being passive-aggressive, but she’s probably worried about the accuracy of her work and is simply running another check. Charlotte isn’t wasting time by sharing a photo from her vacation but trying to bridge the gap of time spent apart and maintain a social connection with everyone.
Invest in self-awareness
Leaders and managers are often unaware of how they influence their teams and organizational culture by modeling appropriate or inappropriate behaviors. If you are a manager or leader, read through the suggestions in this article and assess yourself honestly. If you are a coach working with leaders, explore these topics with your clients.
Use an assessment like Everything DiSC Management to uncover your natural preferences and priorities as a manager, and how to create more effective strategies for directing your employees. Or try the Everything DiSC Work of Leaders profile to discover your leadership style and priorities.
The Five Behaviors model is a proven tool for building trust on teams.
Managers who present themselves authentically—and who prove that they are worthy of trust—have taken a long stride in their journey toward building trust with those they manage.