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8 Ways To Build a Culture of Trust

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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

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.

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