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The Importance of Trust-Building in the Workplace

5 min read

Many of us trust our spouse, family members, a handful of friends, and maybe even our neighbors. But can we actually build legitimate trust in the workplace?

What does it mean to trust someone? Take a moment to give it some thought.

Trust can be earned, built, or shared – but what does it mean at work?


In a recent SuperSoul session entitled “The Anatomy of Trust,” researcher Brené Brown explored what trust is, and how to build it. If you have time, the 25-minute video of this thought-provoking session by this phenomenal presenter is worth a watch.

In it, Brené shares with the audience Charles Feldman’s definition of trust: choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else. Many of us trust our spouse, family members, a handful of friends, and maybe even our neighbors. But can we actually build legitimate trust in the workplace?

Brené breaks it down for her audience with the acronym “B.R.A.V.I.N.G.” Because, in her own words, “when we trust we are braving connection with someone.”

What does “B.R.A.V.I.N.G.” stand for? Below are Brené’s definitions for each, along with the Ariel Group’s tips on how you can build trust in the workplace.

B: Boundaries – I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them and you’re clear about my boundaries and respect them. 

At work, some people will be very clear about their boundaries. It may be having a desk in a quiet corner to concentrate on work. It may be having to leave at 4— on the dot— to pick up their child from soccer practice. It may even be how they prefer to receive feedback and have meetings.

As a leader, it’s your job to respect those boundaries and help your employees have the best working experience. Try to be considerate about their preferences and be clear on ways you can remedy them if they can’t be met. In the same way, if you have blocked off time each morning to get projects done, your employees shouldn’t use that time to “check in.”

R: Reliability – I can only trust you if you do what you say you are going to do, consistently.

Leaders want to ensure that their employees will get the job done, and that no matter how many times a task is assigned, employees will consistently produce quality work.

Coach your employees on what is expected to achieve the business objectives. Does management prefer a short bulleted list in executive summaries or a PowerPoint deck? What analytics or competitors can they keep an eye on to improve reports? Brené says you cannot gain trust if you are only reliable once, because that’s not the definition of reliability.

However, as leaders, you need to know when your own plate is full. Brené states the importance of being transparent about your own reliability at work, “In our working lives, we have to be very clear on our limitations so we don’t take on so much and that we come up short and don’t deliver on our commitments.” Don’t be afraid to ask for help or take time off to recharge.

A: Accountability – I can only trust you if when you make a mistake, you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends. You can only trust me if I can own it, apologize for it, and make amends. 

No accountability? No trust.

Mistakes happen and in some instances, they create the best outcomes. Post-it notes were an accident; the inventors were hoping to make a strong adhesive. And yet, that mistake turned out to be a huge success.

Allow employees the opportunity to make mistakes and be creative. Build upon their ideas using the improv method of “yes, and” so when they do make a mistake, they will be comfortable enough to take ownership.

Even when a mistake doesn’t have a silver lining, it is imperative to listen for the employee’s positive intent behind their actions and preserve their dignity as they repair the situation. Shaming people for poor performance is likely to inhibit them (any anyone else on the team) from disclosure in the future.

V: Vault – What I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me, I will hold in confidence. 

Negative office gossip happens in almost every workplace. If it’s not stopped, it can hinder productivity issues, morale issues, and employee engagement. In this case, it’s important to walk the walk. Don’t share what isn’t yours to share. Be a vault for your direct reports and others. If employees have questions or concerns, use discretion on when to share them with HR.

Brené reminds us that sometimes “common enemy intimacy,” i.e. disliking the same people, creates false trust. Break down cliques and silos by reaching out to other departments. Encourage employees to get to know other team members, even remote ones. Most importantly, be respectful of each individual employee and their walks of life: You respect my story and you respect other people’s stories.

I: Integrity – I cannot trust you and respect you if you do not act from a place of integrity and encourage others to do the same. Choose courage over comfort, and choose what’s right over what’s fun, fast, and easy: practice your values, don’t just profess them. 

Give your employees the opportunity and time to do good work. Asking them to complete a multi-page report at 4:00 p.m. isn’t going to produce quality work. An employee will feel cheated out of going home on time. If one of your values is to help employees maintain a quality work/life balance, you need to act consistently with that value. Values are useless if they are just words on a wall and not practiced.

Leaders also need to help their employees maintain integrity with coworkers and clients. Sometimes we want to help problem-solve for our employees and will work around them to get the task done. Respect other manager’s positions to their own reports or contacts. Jumping into a situation and “taking over” not only questions the employee’s authority, but also their integrity. Don’t use your status to get things done.

N: Non-judgment – I can fall apart and be in struggle and ask for help from you without being judged by you, and you can fall apart and be in struggle and ask for help without being judged by me. 

Judgment and bias are a recipe for disaster in the workplace. And most of the time, we don’t catch ourselves committing either. If you notice an employee not working at their usual potential, rather than make a quick judgment that they are lazy or are potentially looking for a new job, check-in with them. Maybe they need some more guidance and don’t know where to begin. Maybe there’s a personal situation at home and they are doing their best to get through it. Judging employees actions without knowing what’s going on in their personal life will only cause more tension.

Also, be kind to yourself. Don’t judge yourself for needing help. Risk being vulnerable and ask for support; others may feel honored that you trusted them enough to seek them out.

G: Generosity – A relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions, and behaviors. If I screw up, say something, forget something, you will make a generous assumption about me. 

Be generous with assumptions. Our mind may tell us that people intentionally forgot something – and we can feel our blood pressure rise. Pause and breathe before you pick up the phone or call your employees into the office. They won’t feel like they’ve earned your trust — or you can earn theirs — if their motive are constantly being questioned.

Also, be a generous receiver of communication over email where tone can often be misinterpreted and try to assume the best intentions.

Through her research, Brené discovers that trust is built and begins with small, everyday moments we often ignore. Maybe it was someone allowing you to vent. Maybe you went to a relative’s funeral or sent a sympathy card. Whatever these small moments are, appreciate the person’s efforts and work together to build successful, trusting workplace relationships.

Where are the opportunities to build trust? Are you betraying your coworkers by not seizing the opportunities to build trust? Share your experience with us!


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