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The Biggest Problem We Have With Trust

5 things we get wrong about workplace trust

Trust levels at work continue to languish at historic lows, even while satisfaction with job security and other workplaces issues have increased. As of August 2014, Gallup polling has once again confirmed that "less than a third of U.S. employees (30%) are engaged at work."

As Gallup researchers put it, "while Americans may be satisfied with their job security, and with other aspects of their jobs such as vacation time and retirement benefits, it does not necessarily mean they are engaged at work."

Which brings us to the biggest problem we have with workplace trust: We don't understand it. We don't understand its relationship with engagement (hint: trust is an essential ingredient). We don't understand its role in fueling innovative products, services, or positive customer impressions in this new era of work. And we don't understand what it takes to operate with the kind of trust that transforms average results into exceptional ones.

Part of our collective problem with understanding trust stems from last-century mindsets that plague 21st-century work cultures. Many leaders still operate as if employees are interchangeable pieces to be managed, allotted, prodded, and controlled. But in this century, those approaches won't enable the talents, passions, innovation, ideas, self-engagement, and great work that's needed for organizations to thrive.

In an era where trust is the new workplace currency, here are five things we get wrong about trust at work:

1. We think we know what workplace trust is. Different definitions, experiences, and understandings about trust get in our way. Some people operate with naïve, unrealistic trust as if it's a blank check. Others confuse trust with dependability or reliability, or think it must be earned. The kind of trust needed at work is authentic trust, and operating with it is a skill requiring judgment, choice, and action.

2. We're waiting for people to earn our trust. The reality is that you start trust by giving trust. Trust is similar to love or respect. You may be loveable, but that won't get you love – only loving will; you won't get respect unless you give it. Trust works the same way. If you want to be a trusted boss, and get the benefits trust brings, you must go first – you must give trust. It's a process. Authentic trust, like love and respect, is cultivated, grown, and nurtured.

3. We don't understand our obligations as leaders about trust. Leaders are responsible for trust. No, not responsible for everyone trusting everyone; but responsible for creating their own work groups as trust-pockets, being a trusted boss, giving trust to others, and operating with trust building essentials. We're responsible for investing in trust if we want to reap its benefits – such as increased engagement, innovation, and accountability.

4. We aren't willing to make ourselves vulnerable to the risks of trust. Yet, the question we should ask is a bigger one – what's the risk of having little or no trust at work? What's the cost of disengagement or the lack of breakthrough innovation? There's always risk when giving trust, but those who operate with authentic trust know how to evaluate the risks and benefits before giving it, know how to give it, and once given don't take it for granted in a changing landscape.

5. We believe historic low work trust is someone else's problem. Trust is not only about "them" in corporate, political, or business roles; it's about us in our everyday roles. From falsified resumes and padded expense reports, to half-truths and deliberate misdirection; from calling in sick when we're not, to taking credit for someone else's work; and from saying we don't know when we do, to promising one thing and doing another, we collectively impact the trust around us. Low trust is a shared problem.

Today's workplaces have different needs, problems, challenges, knowledge, access, and tools than the workplaces of our parents or grandparents. They also have different expectations, opportunities, and possibilities. Isn't it time our understanding about trust in the 21st-century is updated to match?

Here are more trust building tips to help:

You'll find specific how-tos in my latest book: Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation (Career Press, 2014).


About the Author

Nan S. Russell is a former corporate executive and the author of four books, including, Trust, Inc. and The Titleless Leader.