Business men shaking hands and smiling.
It’s not sweat or revenue that makes companies tick; it’s trust.
Trust touches every area of business. Research published by Harvard Business Review bears this out: Workers at companies where trust is high report 106% greater energy in the office, 74% lower stress levels, 76% greater engagement, and 50% more productivity than their peers at low-trust businesses.
The list goes on, but you get the point: When members of a company know that others have their back, they take risks. When turnover happens, they step in to fill gaps, trusting that things will get better.Trust is powerful, no doubt. But what does it mean in a work context, and more importantly, how can leaders build and maintain it?
What We Mean When We Talk About Trust
Trust doesn’t mean that everyone in the office is best friends. It isn’t about the number of trust falls completed, or even about being helpful when others need a hand. To me, workplace trust means two things: First, that every team member is making their best effort to further the interests of the company; second, that everyone assumes that fact about everyone else on the team unless they see evidence to the contrary.
Those may sound like basic expectations, but I’ve seen plenty of companies where they’re the exception rather than the norm. Employees at those firms try to while the day away without getting caught, while leaders spend their time trying to catch time-wasters. Those problems are self-fulfilling prophecies: Leaders who constantly play bad cop stop trust from being built or destroy it altogether. Employees who take company time for themselves make those leaders feel justified in their actions. It’s a toxic cycle, and there’s only one way to stop it: through culture.
Talk Trust From the Start
Trust is like any other aspect of company culture: It’s important to hire for and even more important to reinforce throughout the relationship. There’s a reason my current company employs multiple members of people I’ve known for a while, and it’s not just because I know those people have the skills to succeed. The reason is that I know I can trust them: Seeing how they conducted themselves in past roles made me confident that I could trust them to help me build a new business from scratch. Even when interviewing someone I’ve worked with in the past, I bring trust up: “For this relationship to work,” I tell them, “We have to be able to trust each other.”
Default to Trust Every Day
Once you’ve hired someone, you’ve got to put a level of trust in them. Although words matter, it’s more important to show that in your actions. I don’t ask my team to track project hours or punch a clock. Throughout the day, I let people come and go for personal appointments. I make sure everyone — even people whose roles rarely require them to make a purchase, such as writers — gets a company credit card. I don’t watch over anyone’s shoulder while they work. Yes, I’ve seen those policies be taken advantage of. Yes, I am sure they will be again in the future. So why do I continue to run my company that way? Because the consequences of clamping down on everyone simply aren’t worth it.
Address Breaches Right Away
What happens when employees do break my trust? I talk to them about it.I don’t go in guns blazing, ready to fire them on the spot. I try to understand what happened: Did I communicate my expectations well? Did the worker have some other motive or insight that I may not be aware of? Usually, there’s something else going on that caused the team member to act as he or she did.
Miscommunications happen. When they do, recognize that the trust you’d built is intact, and strive to keep it that way. Get on the same page with the employee, and move on. If an employee outright lies to me or goes behind my back, the story shifts: I give them a warning once, but I do not tolerate repeat offenses. Giving an untrustworthy team member a break again and again communicates that trust isn’t actually important to me after all. Whatever my personal feelings about that person, I cannot afford to let him or her jeopardize our company’s culture of trust.
Trust Starts With You
Yes, you should trust your employees. But you have to set that stage: Only employ people you can trust, and give them opportunities to earn more of it. You’ll be surprised at how often they rise to the occasion. Treat trust like money: Save it carefully, and spend it wisely. You may not be able to measure it like you can a bank balance, but sooner or later, you’ll see it there, too.