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We’re in this Together: How to Create An Environment of Trust

4 min read

As a member of my company, having trust in my team is important. And my hope is that they trust me in return.

A few weeks ago, I was up in Maine with some friends on my 38-foot sloop. We were on our way back to the harbor when we sailed into some thick, heavy fog. My friends and I couldn’t see more than 100 yards in front of us.

And, just for some context – I’ve been an avid sailor for nearly 40 years, and, while you can never know everything about sailing, I have developed a strong set of skills.

With our sightlines limited, I knew the probability of an accident had increased. Fortunately, I’ve got some instruments that show the proximity of other boats, so I technically “knew” where they were. But my tools aren’t as sophisticated as some of the ones on larger vessels, and there was also the possibility that other boats didn’t have the same instruments I have.

The best way for everyone to avoid a collision was simple: stay put.

After about 20 minutes of maintaining our position, I heard a powerboat that seemed to be moving through the water quickly by the sound of the engine and waves banging against their hull.  I couldn’t tell where it was until he suddenly broke through the fog close to us. He was going way too fast, especially in the fog! Suddenly, the calming thought of “I guess we’ll just wait this out” turned to feelings of anxiety – with all eyes on the other boat.

A few things became immediately apparent:

  1. While my goal was to keep everyone safe, I had no idea what his goal was.
  2. I didn’t know what instruments he had on board or whether he could see us. The best way to guarantee our safety was to be consistent and maintain our position.
  3. Based on what little I knew about this boater – other than his reckless behavior – there was no way I could trust him.

Thankfully, there were no accidents that day, but that experience caused me to reflect on trust in the workplace. In a sense, we’re all out there on the water together – but if our goals aren’t aligned and we can’t trust each other, anxieties and tensions can develop that negatively impact both our effectiveness and our willingness to contribute discretionary efforts. As a member of my company, having trust in my team is important. And my hope is that they trust me in return. But what can I do to turn that hope into reality?

What is Trust?

Trust between two people is defined as:

  • Knowing your interests are aligned
  • Believing the other person is competent & predictable
  • Having confidence in their expertise within the context of their role

As leaders and managers, it is difficult to track every detail of each person’s day-to-day responsibilities. Instead, we have to trust our people to do their jobs. In return, they have to trust you to lead. Here’s what’s worked for me:

  • Tap into people from your past. I have members of my team whom I’ve worked with before. Because of my past positive experiences with them, I know they’re competent and I have confidence in their abilities. Similarly because of their previous experiences with me, these team members are already “in my corner” and can encourage others to trust me as well.
  • Be consistent. The more you develop your own style and preferred processes, the better. Keep in mind: your best practices should be the same for every employee. Think about the unfair impact of a baseball coach criticizing one player for not running out a ground ball to first but allowing another to “casually trot” down the line. It’s the same for your employees – be consistent in your behaviors and actions and your credibility will grow.

The more you can develop an authentic and consistent leadership style – how you communicate via e-mails, share feedback, conduct presentations, etc. — the more likely people will trust you.

  • Have moments of failure. The outcome of failure is feedback for continuous improvement. Failure is a learning opportunity. If a breakdown in trust happens, guide your team to put preventions in place moving forward so that the same mistake doesn’t happen again.

I try be mindful to protect my team’s trust in me as well as their personal brand. For example, if a team member did something that wasn’t working, it wouldn’t affect my perception of who they are – it’s one mistake. If I held it against them, it would make it impossible for them to do their best work. In the same respect, it’s up to me as a leader and a manager to keep development conversations confidential. I want to protect their brand in the office – this allows others to continue to trust that they are doing – and will do – their best work.

Your team members are still accountable for performance, but they shouldn’t be accountable for perfection.

Trust in the workplace is really empowering. Everyday I’m met with countless distractions – e-mails that need my response, priorities to manage, thoughts on making our business better – and I don’t always have the bandwidth to uncover what’s below the surface.

Like being on a sailboat, I can’t control everything – a change in wind, an imminent storm, or looming fog. I have to trust in my team members’ abilities to contribute to the situation so that we can get through it together.

Having the right people in place whom I trust and who trust me to guide them has made all the difference, and we’re able to share responsibility for our success – and steer our ship safely back to the harbor.

What have you done to establish and maintain trust in your workplace? Let us know in the comments below.

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