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8 Ways To Build a Culture of Trust

Years ago, two leaders who reported to me struggled to trust one another. Because they started with a trust-deficit with each other, they tended to work independently, leaving potential synergies between them unrealized. Even worse, they undermined my efforts to build a culture of trust. One of…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Years ago, two leaders who reported to me struggled to trust one another.

Because they started with a trust-deficit with each other, they tended to work independently, leaving potential synergies between them unrealized. Even worse, they undermined my efforts to build a culture of trust.

One of the most important jobs you as a leader have is to build a culture of trust. It may also be one of the hardest things you will ever do. Hundreds of interactions every day either deplete or add to an organization’s “trust meter” – a measure of the amount of trust corporately on deposit.

In my case, if I couldn’t get those two leaders to a place where they could trust one another, then the trust meter would take a hit. If I could help them to do the hard thing and lean into one another, then our organization’s trust meter would rise. The two co-workers then would get a do-over. They would have the opportunity to help one another and participate with us in building a culture of trust all over again.

A leader’s toughest job

But here’s the toughest thing I or any other leader have to do: If at some point a staff member is so independent (some would say selfish) that he can’t participate in building a culture of trust, I’ve got to make sure they don’t hurt those around them.

It is the leader’s tough assignment to find a way to ensure that the staff member doesn’t undermine his trust-building efforts.  This may even require a parting of the ways.  It’s a step many leaders are reluctant to take. The result is dysfunction and a hit to trust. They are a piece of the corporate body that doesn’t fit with everyone else.

Why is trust building so important?

Trust is a function of culture not only in organizations, but in countries as well.

Arabic cultures are notoriously low-trust.  Turn your back on your neighbor and he may stab you.  Convert to Christianity and it’s your family’s job to kill you. 

In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, the American army tried to transplant our high-trust values in a low-trust culture.  It didn’t work. 

Trust is the glue that holds our families, churches, and economy together.  Because we live in a high-trust culture, we assume that other nations behave as we do – we’re amazingly naïve about it.

Trust is what enables us to specialize and focus on honing one skill set to a fine point.  The neurosurgeon can’t grow food and the farmer can’t operate on his wife’s brain cancer. They have to trust one another. 

Just count the number of times you have to trust people in a given day.  Every economic transaction – anything you buy or sell – requires you trust someone.

Families that can’t trust

When children grow up in low-trust families where moms and dads show by their actions that it’s not safe to trust (divorcing or just not talking to each other), they usually acquire dysfunctional behaviors to compensate. 

If they marry, they will likely bring their own children up in this dysfunction.  If they lead organizations, they will create a toxic, low-trust culture that is trapped in the realm of the superficial.  And saddest of all, they will struggle all their lives to trust a God who they feel abandoned them to their pain. 

If you’re someone who has never learned to trust, it’s not too late.  Press into the pain that formed this behavior in you.  Choose to break the bondage of the past.  Choose to create a different culture in your own family.  Choose to trust people one at a time, a day at a time.  Set them and yourself free. 

My wife is a counselor – she helps clients who in one way or another are seeking to get back to a place of trust. Trusting themselves, trusting others, trusting God. The alternative is isolation and perhaps depression. Going to a counselor is a good place to start if you realize that you don’t want to live where you are.

Ways to build trust

Trust is the glue that enables people to function well together. Because we want to create a workplace that is safe, an environment where trust can be nurtured, I ask our leaders to act as stewards of trust in relationships. These eight principles help them:

1. Trust in a relationship or an organization is built by acting with integrity. People do what they promise to do. And we call each other on slip-ups.

2. Trust is built over time through competence, commitment, & care. We trust what is predictable.

3. Trust is built as we preserve and build the significance of others. We make a practice of thanking each other. We show that we value people.

4. Trust is built through bearing each others burdens. We trust those who serve us. If I show you kindness, I activate the principle of reciprocity – you want to do the same thing for me.

5. Trust is built through a rapid response to communication. We respond to phone calls and emails quickly. It’s a way of showing that others are a priority.

6. Trust is built through humility. We set aside our individual rights in favor of the team. We own our shortcomings and easily apologize.

7. Trust is built through vulnerability. We don’t hide behind email. Recognizing that relationships are best built in person, we get face-to-face and we share our weakness.

8. Trust is built by good feedback loops and is diminished by sarcasm. We say what we mean and over-communicate. Sarcasm is just not allowed in our workplace.

Don’t you want to work in a culture of trust? Look at these eight trust principles. Which of them come easy for you? Are you sometimes guilty of diminishing trust? What do you need to work on?

A good place to start is with those closest to you. Ask them to give you feedback about the ways in which you could better build trust with them. We all want to be trusted. We just have to be prepared to do the hard work to get there.

Comments (14)

  • While I understand anyone’s desire to be trusted..I am not sure you are aware that trust is EARNED not just whimsically given away to every person who walks in front of you. If there are trust issues between people there is a reason.
    How does this article foster trust? There are now two leaders who report to you out of I don’t know how many who are panicked wondering if you are referring to them.
    Your staff is reading this wondering what unexpected changes are about to happen with their leaders. This sounds like one huge threat that is going to make anyone who works in your organization have even less trust.
    Add this as the #1 way you foster trust
    9. Act and speak consistently (like taking down this article because it’s damaging to the anonymous leaders you are referring to and damaging to your staff as they see you talking about trust and pretty much demanding trust whether it has been earned or not or suffering the consequences)

  • Thanks Seth for putting some railroad tracks down for sometimes languishing locomotives unwilling to move towards that often elusive destination of *trust*. Marriages, friendships, families, businesses, ministries and every facet of our world depends on this “Gorilla Glue.”

    In those seasons of my own life when being untrustworthy was uncharacteristically pronounced it had some prime movers behind the scenes along these lines:

    1. The person wanting to trust me didn’t remember we had as yet unfinished business.

    2. The fear of being hurt, misunderstood or taken advantage of clouded reality.

    3. I wasn’t self aware of my own predispositions to play “defense” more than engage.

    4. There were not enough safe people in my life to throw open my “Johari Window.”

    5. The notion of the Planet Maker being a trustworthy loving God had eroded away.

    6. Perpetual pain from predictable sources caused me to set healthy boundaries.

    7. Seasons of primarily self-focus drained the banks of empathy, mercy and love.

    We aren’t called to trust everyone. Boundary setting has been one of the greatest new freedoms in my life and a catalyst for sober living in every expression of that phrase.

    I’ve had a number of conversations in the past year with people with whom I want a relationship where I’ll say “I’m a work in progress. Here are some of my vulnerabilities. Would you be aware of these and if you see me straying from core commitments I’m inviting you to speak into my life.”

    You can’t do that with many people but when you find them those smooth stones of treasured relationship get put into the trusty weathered leather bag around your waist.

    So much of life is managing tensions more than solving problems.

    But leaning into the froth is better than kayaking alone on placid ponds of self protection and running to the roars of threatening lions is sometimes the safest gambit of all.

    My own broken life has had times Seth where I’ve blistered the blessing of our 30+ year fellowship through lame or half-assed behaviors. But. The sirens always call for a “coming back” to the safe folds of friendship which has been forged by many fires, frigid winters and frequent self-doubt. Thank you–again.

  • Wow – that was really good, Butch. You at your best – which is a beautiful thing to behold. I appreciated the vulnerability and the poetry. I especially liked this:

    “But leaning into the froth is better than kayaking alone on placid ponds of self protection and running to the roars of threatening lions is sometimes the safest gambit of all.”

    Let’s keep pressing into those hard places where boundaries are needed, but also where walls can be taken down and relational connection restored. It’s tough, and often toughest in one’s own family. But so worth it.

    I love this season you’re in – keep forging ahead. Let’s be safe places for others and let’s be dangerous to the enemy.

  • I am so grateful to God our Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the word of God that transforms lives to be able to trust, forgive, and trust again. It is WONDERFUL to live in a culture and society that has been heavily influenced by the spirit of God and biblical principles. Not everyone should be trusted, even Jesus did not entrust himself to all people (John 2:24) so wisdom is needed in all circumstances and relationships. But thank God that if we ask He gives us wisdom! (James 1:5) We all make mistakes and break trust. We are sinners. Hence, we are instructed to forgive 77 x 7 (i.e. unlimited). Is it easy? No way. But through the power of the Holy Spirit that we invite to work in our lives to change and transform us into the likeness of Christ, we can be shining lights to the world. And genuine trust (and the ability to re-trust) is a HUGE testimony of our Savior’s life-transforming work to everyone! It’s all wrapped up in love and that is how the world will know that we are His disciples (John 13:35). I’m with Jesus. He teaches us about real love and real trust and demonstrated that on the cross. Amazing. That’s MY God.

  • You make a fair point about the way I shared the story and it’s potential to be misinterpreted – it actually happened about ten years ago. Seeing what you saw, I quickly changed the tense I used. If you refresh your screen, you’ll see the change.

    Thanks for taking the time to bring it to my attention.

  • Seth,
    This really good. I work in a very low trust organization and you “hit the nail on the head” as to the many causes – chief being that the CEO allows several key leaders to act badly and refuses to address their behavior. Thank you for writing this.

    • Thanks, Alan. The hard thing is when the toxicity of our environment begins to rub off on us. It’s a scary thing to observe yourself having the power to preserve trust, but then to not do so because you’re concerned about the consequences given the toxic culture you’re in.

      Let’s catch up when you get the chance.

  • I would add that transparency is foundational to developing trust. You can’t build trust if you are not willing to trust and be open. I know that’s a big deal in my organization and in my family.

  • I assume that after 10 years the trust issue is resolved. Can we start working on the honesty issue?? Not hiding behind an email. I would love to sit down in person. if you are ever in Southern California let me know. I will drop everything to accommodate meeting you face to face.

  • Thank you for this post. I am saving it offline. I also want to discuss this topic with my team and squad. I think it would free people to truly embrace feedback.

  • I try to make a practice of not hiding. I don’t take down comments like yours and try to respond at a human level rather than in public that’s why I have not responded on this blog till now. That’s why I wrote you privately twice and asked you to explain what you meant by your comment and offering to talk with you. I further checked with others who knew you who gave me the context of your situation. They offered to show me a great deal of context.

    Given that you have not responded to me, apparently our situation remains an issue that you prefer not to address. Or maybe it is no longer an issue for you. That said, reconciliation is important to me as is ownership of missteps. I will say that not only do I regularly struggle to implement the principles I articulate, but so do those who work with me. My only defense is that I am a flawed servant seeking to grow every day. And I believe that if more of our leaders responded in this way, the body of Christ would not be so broken.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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