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The issue of trust—and mistrust—is powerfully relevant in our culture today. We hear comments about trust all over the news and frequently in personal conversations: “I trust that guy about as far as I can throw him.”
Trust is essential to work-based relationships for many reasons: effective teamwork, collaboration with suppliers, smooth functioning of the organization to produce goods and services, better customer relationships and, ultimately, to obtain optimal outcomes.
MISTRUST IN WORK RELATIONSHIPS
There are several reasons we may struggling to trust others at work, but certain themes do recur across work settings. Situations where one person doesn’t trust another include concerns about the other person:
- not telling the truth (or withholding information)
- not accomplishing the task on time
- delivering unacceptable work
- not keeping information confidential
- showing up at meetings late and unprepared
- undercutting you, gossiping, or spreading rumors about you
TRUST IS NOT EITHER/OR
The issue of trust is not as clear-cut as we think. Making an all-or-nothing judgment about whether someone is either totally trustworthy or cannot be trusted at all is rarely valid. In reality, almost everyone can be appropriately trusted to complete some tasks successfully.
TRUST IS SITUATION-SPECIFIC
At times, trust can center on someone’s ability to do a specific task and whether we can place our confidence in them. For example, if you were to trust me to fix your car, your trust would be misplaced because I have virtually no mechanical ability at all. However, if you believed that I could type your paper for you relatively quickly, that would be a good situation in which to trust me.
It is important to understand that trust is situation-specific because it gives us a pathway to build or rebuild low levels of trust and a way for a relationship to move beyond the “they’re trustworthy / untrustworthy” impasse.
PHASES OF REBUILDING TRUST
Repairing and rebuilding trust when it has been damaged between people at work can be complicated. Before you begin creating an action plan, a couple of “prework” steps are needed.
Phase I: “Prework steps”
1. Clarify the situation(s) in which you have a hard time trusting your colleague. Since we have learned that trust is not all or nothing, it is helpful to define:
- What is the situation in which you doubt their trustworthiness?
- Which aspects of trust (a lack of competence, a lack of character or a lack of consistency) lead you to question your colleague’s dependability in this situation?
Specifying the situation and the area of concern allows for a problem-solving approach to be used. Next, work to increase their competence, or put safeguards in place around concerns such as character or consistency. Otherwise, you and others will be stuck with your feelings of mistrust. Without taking time to identify the circumstances, source, and level of mistrust, the next step will either be unclear, or more probably, a mistake.
2. Consider and define your workplace relationship. The next step depends on the nature of your business relationship to the other individual—do you supervise them directly? Are they a colleague in your department? Are they your supervisor or in a leadership position above you in the organization? Or are they someone you work with, but in a different department or division of the company? The appropriate action to take will be partly defined by the type and nature of your work-based relationship.
Phase II: Implement Guiding Principles
1. Wait, reflect, observe, and consider before you say anything. You can’t take back your words once you say them. So be cautious before you start.
2. Be careful about talking to someone else about your lack of trust in a coworker unless he or she has a direct leadership role in the situation. If you’re going to say anything, either talk directly to the other person, or talk to your supervisor. Talking about the person to someone else typically leads nowhere positive.
3. Don’t express your concerns in vague generalities. Give specific examples that illustrate why you lack confidence in the person’s competence, a specific character quality, or their consistency. If you can’t cite any specifics, then you shouldn’t raise the issue.
4. Think about specific ways the person may be able to demonstrate their trustworthiness. Plan ahead and come up with possible opportunities that would let your colleague demonstrate their trustworthiness in this situation. Then, hopefully, you can reset and move on to another task, and another, and together you can rebuild the trust you have in them.
Repairing and rebuilding trust when it has been damaged between people at work can be quite complicated. In our book, Making Things Right at Work, we dedicate two chapters to discussing issues surrounding trust and how to rebuild it. It takes time and careful consideration, but working through these steps can lead to re-established trusting relationships in the workplace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. White is the coauthor of three books including, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, written with Dr. Gary Chapman (author of the #1 NY Times bestseller, The 5 Love Languages), which has sold over 425,000 copies. Based on their extensive research and expertise, Dr. White and Dr. Chapman have developed a unique way for organizations to motivate employees that leads to increased job satisfaction, higher employee performance and enhanced levels of trust. Their online assessment tool, Motivating by Appreciation Inventory, has been taken by over 200,000 employees and their Appreciation at Work training resources have been used by numerous corporations, colleges and universities, medical facilities, schools, non-profit organizations, and government agencies, and is used in over 60 countries.