Building and Repairing Trust in Working Relationships

In What Matters at Work, we talk a great deal about dealing with issues of conflict, transition, and meaningful conversations. Underlying each of these topics is the issue of Trust, which often is in short supply in our workplaces. Even more powerful is the concept of Betrayal, that persistent wound and pain when trust has been lost. This is important in any relationship (families, communities, friendships), but its consequences specifically for the workplace will be examined here. 

What exactly do we mean by “Trust?” I see three discreet ways it is expressed: 

  • Transactional Trust relates to those substantive promises we make to one another that we will do certain things. For example, “I promised I would show up for the meeting.” or “You promised to deliver the project by Friday.” If we are reliable people, we earn transactional trust. Conversely, to fail to deliver on our promises is to betray that trust, and we are then seen as “unreliable” in that regard. Much of our productivity at work relies, at its foundation, upon transactional trust. 
  • Emotional Trust relates to feeling safe interacting with another person, understanding without question that such interactions can be respectful, validating, and otherwise emotionally supportive. When we demean one another (or are seen as doing so), emotional trust is betrayed and a deep wound often results that makes people reluctant to speak honestly or vulnerably with one another. In the workplace, emotional trust is essential if we are to raise difficult issues, express concerns over project direction, react to another’s comments that may be experienced as triggering fears and anxieties, etc. Once lost, people often avoid such discussions, allowing those concerns and opportunities to fester and remain unresolved. 
  • Identity Trust relates to how safe I feel my personal and professional identity is in your hands: Do you speak badly of me to others? Will you provide a good recommendation when it is needed? How well do you regard my skills and competence when considering assignments and promotions? If I trust you as a reliable keeper or my identity, I will rely upon that trust in situations that deeply matter to me. On the other hand, if I fear what you will say or with whom you will share concerns, I may withhold information or services. 

Each of these dimensions of trust is increasingly complex, difficult to regain once betrayed and lost. As such, we may also see a pathway to negotiate new “rules of engagement” that can rebuild trust: 

  • Transactional Trust – Establish action-based agreements, starting with smaller “promises to be fulfilled” (aka contracts), where success can be readily measured and accountability can be verified. Submitting reports, completing checklists, showing up for work hours, etc. can be examples of such transactions. 
  • Emotional Trust – Establish “Guidelines for a Safe and Constructive Work Environment,” together, based upon behaviors that demonstrate respect. Identify ways to let each other know of “violations” or “sensitivities” before they accumulate. After every meeting, review the Guidelines to identify successes, failures, and uncertainties in order to gain a broader understanding of how group members perceive the experiences they’ve had in the meeting. Expect differences! Patiently allow time to explore and understand how “Intent” and “Impact” may be quite different for various people. Over time, the need to review Guidelines may become less frequent, but it should not be abandoned. 
  • Identity Trust – Once you have experienced efforts to address Transactional and Emotional trust for a while, a deeper dialogue regarding Identity trust may be feasible. This should simply be a dialogue without action items, to restore faith that you all may understand one another’s experiences and perspectives. After this experience, if warranted, other meetings may be convened to develop strategies and actions that fulfill a broader commitment to rebuilding trust and healing. 

Additional Resources for those who want to explore this topic may be found in the work of Michelle and Dennis Reina, whose book Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace offers a wealth of information. You may also visit their site for an excellent article on this topic: What are your experiences rebuilding trust in the workplace? Which types of trust seem to be most important in your organization?

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

I am a facilitator, mediator, educator, and consultant specializing in addressing complex challenges and disputes within organizations. I bring over 40 years experience to this work and offer two recent books, What Matters at Work (2020) and What Matters in This Moment (2021) to these efforts.

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