"We need more trust on this team," my client insisted. We were in the middle of a one-on-one coaching session, and as she was getting frustrated, it was clear to her what the problem was: "There are two members that I know I can’t trust no matter what."
I had one question for her: "How much do you think those two trust you?"
My client responded quickly, claiming that she’d never done anything that would call her own trustworthiness into question. "They’re just difficult!" she said. (Actually, she used a more colorful term.) But rather than affirming her point of view, I pressed her again. "Have you ever done anything for them that you didn't have to do?"
That one made her laugh.
Many of us think about trust running in one direction: "Do I trust this person or that person?" Chances are you can name one or two colleagues off the top of your head whom you particularly trust at work, and another one or two whom you don't.
But we seldom ask whether other people trust us, and why (or why not). Back in that heated coaching session, I pressed my client to think harder about her relationship with the two team members she distrusted. "What are the specific pressures your joint boss is putting on them?" I asked her. She gave in for the day, admitting she had no idea—and that she really didn't care. But she did pause for a moment to acknowledge, "Obviously, that might be part of the problem."
When we step back from team dynamics, we all like to talk about trust in the abstract, without addressing the specific perceptions and behavioral choices that determine it. It’s all too easy to get locked into patterns of perceiving and behaving that don’t build trust, leaving us unaware of them and even further from understanding what things we actually can do in order to build it. As a result, our own feelings toward others—how much and whether we trust them, and vice versa—remain a bit of a mystery.
Changing that can dramatically improve how well your team works together, and it starts by understanding what the most trusted people actually do in order to get that way. Here are three of the primary habits of those who command others' trust at work.
You might not realize it, but your internal trust meter is always running in both directions. Others are constantly assessing whether you're trustworthy; you aren't the only one sizing other people up. Humans, thanks to our survival wiring, spend a lot more time protecting ourselves from untrustworthy people than we do thinking about the signals we ourselves send about our own trustworthiness.
Think about three colleagues and rate how much you think they trust you on a scale of one to 10. What do those at the top do that you don't? Think about your interactions from the past few weeks with those people, and start shifting your mind-set toward your own behaviors. Are you behaving in ways that send similar signals that others can rely on you? You don't have to worry that your self-protective mechanisms will stop working. That won’t go away—it's hardwired.
At work, everyone's behavior is heavily impacted by the pressures of the situation. People react differently, but you aren't the only one feeling the squeeze. People who can still perform under pressure succeed, and those who can't tend to struggle. Those who command their teammates' trust are pretty good at empathizing with that, and others take notice. Notice what kinds of pressures your colleagues may be feeling. If you were in their role, what would you be concerned about?
Taking the time to figure that out matters. It's the only way you can build a meaningful bridge and gain others' trust when times get tough. It can be as simple as just asking questions about what's going on in your colleague’s world. We tend to trust people who listen and pay attention to us more than those who don’t. Your colleagues may start noticing what is going on at your end, too, and asking how you're faring.
The most trusted people in your company think less about what they haven't done to earn others' ire than what they have done to earn their support. Simple, unprompted acts of kindness can go a long way. Here are a few trust-building ideas:
- Make the trip down the hall or pick up the phone when you need to disagree (as opposed to shooting off an email).
- Offer to help someone on your team who could use the support—whether it's a pair of hands or just a fresh perspective.
- Pull a colleague into a discussion with your boss when you don’t have to, but think it could help get to a better solution faster.
These simple actions don't require much effort, but they're a great way to send a strong, sincere message of inclusion. And yes, it really is the little things.
Once we decide we can’t trust a certain coworker, we tend to distance ourselves. The first things we stop doing are these little, trust-building acts. And disengaging alone can run your trust meter down even further. So make the conscious effort to do something nice that you don’t have to do. You'll make yourself more trusted, and hopefully, stop wondering why everyone on your team seems so suspicious of each other—or you in particular.
Karissa Thacker is founder and president of Strategic Performance Solutions Inc., a management training and consulting firm dedicated to elevating people to reach their highest potential and career satisfaction. She is the author of The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self.