Workplace Trust: How Important Is It Really?

Trust issues come up in almost every workplace conflict that I enter. Maybe these catch phrases sound familiar...

“I just don’t trust him.”

“That was the final straw.”

“I’m done.”

If you’ve ever been in a conflict at work, you know how these hard-and-fast responses control the conversation.

“I just don’t trust her” is the ultimate conflict trump card. When someone plays it, it’s like saying “Conversation over.” She isn’t trustworthy, so what else can there be to talk about?

You have a point there.

If we can’t trust one another, how can work together? How can we talk and collaborate to accomplish a mission? We can’t.

But if that’s the end of the conversation, our daily work life looks pretty bleak.

Hope may keep us from falling into personal despair at our desks.

Curiosity may help us fight the negative bias we bring to the office.

But trust is the common ground we stand on. Without it, we experience a kind of workplace homelessness — no ‘grounds’ for relationship, no possibility for collaboration.

Without trust, we have no real workplace.

Sure, we can ‘draw the line’ and say ‘end of conversation.’ But I believe the stakes—your flourishing, your company’s flourishing—are just too high for that. (See our post on tough conversations.)

How important is trust in the workplace? It’s your foundation. It’s everything. So instead of ending the conversation, let’s take a moment to consider:

How does trust actually work?

Trust is transactional.

Somewhere in our consciousness, we all carry around bank accounts of trust.

All of our interactions with other people are like transactions. Each interaction with a coworker either draws out some of that trust or deposits more trust. What happens when conflict comes? We access our trust account. The lower the balance, the more challenging it will be to resolve the conflict—because a low balance is usually the result of trust-breaking transactions that occurred over time.

In other words...


Trust is cumulative.

Have you noticed how “the final straw” is never really a reaction to ‘that one thing.’ It’s a reaction to everything that happened before. (Hence, why our final straw reactions can seem so disproportionately major).

The erosion of trust is never as simple as “I just don’t trust him.” It’s just that—an erosion—100 things that wore down our trust and left a sense of betrayal.


Trust-building: Doing the foundational work.

All good foundations are built with patience and attention, piece by piece, over time. If trust is foundational to a healthy work culture, then there’s no other way around it: We have to build trust in small increments, valuing every interaction as if it matters. Because it does.

Dennis and Michelle Reina (read their book Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace) nuance trust in a way that’s especially helpful. They say trust is built in three ways:

  • Capability - We build ‘capability trust’ when we do our work with competency, confidence, and a good attitude.

  • Character - We build ‘character trust’ when we do what we say we’ll do and work for the shared interests of the team.

  • Communication - We build ‘communication trust’ when we’re generous with information and are open with our teammates, eager to encourage and also willing to have those tough conversations when needed.

We’ll get into each of these categories again next week—with some insights on how to recover and rebuild trust when supplies have been depleted. For now, here’s the takeaway:

When you’re aware that trust is being eroded, recognize the threat to your team’s foundation. It’s time to have a tough conversation.  

In Dennis’ and Michelle’s words...

“Business is built through relationships, and trust is the foundation of effective relationships. Trust is an aspect of the workplace that high performance cannot live without. When people trust one another, they open up their hearts and minds to one another, forge productive partnerships, and collectively lower their shoulders to move mountains.”


Thanks for trusting us as a voice of encouragement in your mountain-moving work.

—Steve


Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at admin@cstevebeck.com.