Building an Environment for Workplace Trust

Working in an environment where people ferociously guard their desks and data isn’t just unpleasant, it’s stressful and depressing. When information is horded, poor communication is standard fare, and the blame game abounds, workplace productivity is minimal. Without trust, deadlines and promises are hollow words. Creative problem-solving and risk-taking are out of the question. Working in an environment of distrust is just plain demoralizing.

Trust in a professional setting is a key ingredient for a company or an individual’s professional success. When trust levels are high people exceed expectations and break boundaries, creating new products and services, and developing new skills and abilities. Individuals and organizations thrive when trust levels are high.

Working in an environment of trust is great, but it doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time to build trust. We begin with negotiated trust where a contract or letter of agreement defines our trust level. The next step is conditional trust, where we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt but we still keep an eye on things. If all goes well for a few experiences at the level of conditional trust we can move on to cooperative trust. Cooperative trust is a bit like letting your teenager drive your car for the first six or eight times; you begin to trust that they’ll do the right thing if something bad happens to your car. The highest level of trust is unconditional trust. Unconditional trust is word bound and both parties have proven personal responsibility, reliability, and accountability. Unconditional trust is where great things happen.

Benefits to Organizations & Individuals

There are benefits for an organization where teams routinely work at the highest level of trust; unconditional trust. The benefits include the ability to:

Pool intellectual capital Quickly identify and implement solutions and improvement processes Efficiently use resources Create collaborative environments where brainstorming, idea generation, and problem-solving is a standard, effective process Easily position people, products and/or services to meet market demands

There are personal benefits to individuals who foster an atmosphere of team trust that include:

The ability to quickly get assistance from team members Quick access to relevant data and broader options when making decisions Optimal ideas and solutions for successful projects Enhanced leadership and career opportunities

The Four I’s of Building Trust

Working at the level of unconditional trust is a great thing, but how do we get there? There are four critical steps to take along the path to unconditional trust in a workplace relationship. They are what I call the “Four I’s” because “I am responsible for building trust in the workplace.” The Four I’s of Building Trust are: Invite, Inform, Investigate, and Ignite. Following these four steps helps to build strong working relationships and an environment of mutual trust which helps teams more easily achieve goals and objectives. Each of the four steps requires critical practices as outlined below.


Don’t assume that colleagues are already on board with you – invite them to participate in the project or join the team Identify and invite both team and non-team members with common goals Identify and invite individuals who can support the goal Invite others to join you – take the initiative to ask.


Agree to inform each other and commit to reliable, ongoing two-way communication Openly and diplomatically share problems and concerns, and listen to problems and concerns Introduce and link together individuals who will benefit from a direct working relationship Consistently encourage reciprocity


Investigate the possibilities by generating options and exploring alternatives Seek out opinions from anyone who touches the project Give full consideration to all suggestions Make adjustments as needed based on feedback


Ignite the excitement by painting a vivid picture of what success will look like Consistently share your vision of success with your colleagues Provide a clear plan that includes expectations, roles and responsibilities Enthusiastically define the benefits and rewards of success

Taking the Risk

Letting go and trusting a co-worker is a risky step. There’s a chance that you’ll be disappointed and deceived if you trust the wrong person. It’s best to begin a working relationship at the first level, negotiated trust, and then, work through the remaining levels. At the second level, conditional trust, even President Ronald Reagan adopted a signature phrase while negotiating peace; “Trust, but verify.”

Someone has to take the first risk. If you sit in your office waiting for someone else to build an environment of trust the day may never come. You’ll be trapped in a tormented career or a depressing job. Remember, the Four I’s say, “I am responsible for building trust in the workplace.” Start with small risks and remember the advice of Albert Einstein, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” Einstein’s advice works both ways. Remember, colleagues need to be able to count on you for the big things and the small things.

When the small steps are successful, move on to bigger risks for trust. American statesman and political leader Henry Stimson said, “The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.” Take the risk, take the steps, and build an environment for workplace trust. American author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said, “You can get anything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

Give it a try. Trust each other, work together, and realize that the possibilities are endless.

Gina Covell Maddox is a professonal speaker and the author of The Working Woman’s Rant & Rave Guidebook: Audacious Advice for Handling Everyday Workplace Challenges That Make You Want to Scream (Orange Cat Press, 2010)

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