Trust Falls at Work… Seriously? Trust in the Workplace

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“I Trust You” video by RossCreations

I talk with a lot of people about networks. I tell them that, at the very root of the matter, networks are about trust. We build relationships with people we trust in order to solve problems, get things done, and imagine what could make our companies successful and the world a better place.

When I have these conversations about trust, one group of people nods. They intuitively understand the importance of being able to trust your colleagues.

Then there’s another group that subtly backs away, wary that I’m going to ask them to put on a blindfold and fall backwards into their colleagues’ arms. And I realize that I have to have that conversation again: the one that clarifies what trust at work means.

(Some consultant, sometime, somewhere, must have actually done trust falls in the workplace. I wish he hadn’t, because it’s made things difficult for the rest of us.)

Saj-nicole Joni shares a pragmatic model for trust in the workplace in The Geography of Trust. She makes it easy: there are three kinds of trust.

Personal Trust

Personal trust is based on a person’s integrity, intent, and results. Do you do what you say you’re going to do? Do you keep confidences? Do you refrain from undermining your colleagues? If so, great. You have personal trust down pat.

Personal trust is what most people mean when they talk about trust. They focus on whether the person is reliable, dependable, and honorable. But there’s more to personal trust. This kind of trust also deals with:

  • The tendency to be positive about your work, your colleagues, and your company. When people don’t show positivity, especially about others in the workplace, colleagues worry: “What is she saying about me when I’m not there?”
  • The willingness to take responsibility for results. Blaming your mistake on someone else, or even making excuses for your error, undermines trust because it makes people wonder: “When is he going to throw me under the bus?”
  • The self-awareness to state your intentions and motivations openly and honestly so people know what you’re all about. When you don’t, people are sometimes left unsure: “What’s her hidden agenda?”

When people have high levels of personal trust, work can be highly productive and a joy. In fact, high trust is necessary for groups seeking to achieve extraordinary goals. After all, if you can’t trust people with your wild idea, how will your team ever escape conventional thinking and come up with something truly innovative?

Expertise Trust

Expertise trust deals with the accuracy and quality of someone’s knowledge and ability. Do you give sound advice? If you don’t know something, are you clear about the limits of your knowledge? Do you have the experience and knowledge to back up your ideas? If so, you have expertise trust.

People often mix up personal and expertise trust. They figure: “Since Jake can’t keep a secret, I can’t trust him.” They avoid Jake even if he happens to be the resident expert on something.

If you work with people you don’t trust, take a moment to think about why you don’t trust them. Is the distrust personal? Do you have reasons to distrust their expertise as well?  It may be that you can benefit from their expertise even if you never confide in them and take them as a trusted colleague.

Structural Trust

Structural trust is based on the reality that people perceive trustworthiness partially based on the person’s role or position. Here are a few examples:

  • We tend to instinctively distrust people who are above us in a hierarchy.
  • We tend to instinctively trust people who share qualities with us, such as alma mater, native language, or background.
  • Certain professions, like used car sales and real estate agents, are dogged by perceptions of untrustworthiness.
  • Other professions are perceived as more trustworthy, such as doctors and engineers.
  • Some departments are perceived as less trustworthy than others, like auditing (people often see their role as policing and tattling, rather than safeguarding the company) and marketing (people sometimes think marketing will say anything to make a buck, even if it isn’t true).

If you’re in a role or department that people don’t naturally trust, you have a challenge. You’ll have to work a little harder to show people you can be trusted. You’ll need to find common ground with them, state your intentions clearly, follow through on commitments, and offer sound expertise. In other words, your demonstrations of personal and expertise trust need to be more frequent and visible than those of other people.

Who do you trust at work?

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