What Do Your Words Broadcast About Trust?

Workplace language provides clues about trust or distrust.

Posted Mar 30, 2017

Years ago, as a young and recently hired professional, my boss asked me to sit in on a meeting he couldn't attend with his department-head peers. That meeting was an awakening, of sorts. Until then, I'd naïvely trusted the company's publicly professed statement: "employees are our most important asset." After that meeting, not so much.

The managers' words cried, "distrust." Referring to employees as "butts in seats" like interchangeable pieces, discussing harsher rules needed to "control" or "punish" a few deficient procedure-followers, and identifying which "bodies" were needed to handle an upcoming project, all provided clues to what they really thought. Their words broadcast a belief that employees weren't to be trusted.

Of course, trust or distrust isn't always so easy to discern. While behavioral integrity—the alignment of actions and words—is a much better indicator of whether someone is worthy of our trust, or we are worthy of theirs, plenty can be telegraphed by words alone.

In this era of distrust, start by listening for word-clues to assist in determining whether to trust or not trust others, as well as how they may hear your word-clues. Here are a few examples to get you started.

Public Domain Archive - free stock photo
Source: Public Domain Archive - free stock photo

To understand the clues you broadcast about trust or distrust, ask yourself:

  1. Am I talking about me or about you most of the time? Are my words about impact on me or you; what we can do to make a difference or what I need from you to achieve what I want? The me-me-me focus signals caution about trust. Authentic trust happens when there is a mutually beneficial relationship. Is yours?
  2. Do I say you work with me, or for me; that I'm going to talk with him or to her? Do I ask you what you think and then listen, device-free, or tell you what I think as a precursor to what I want you to say back? It's more than semantics. Talking "to" someone hinders dialogue, indicating a more parental or control intent. If people work with you, and talk with you, it implies a collaborative desire on your part. That simple difference signals more trust.
  3. Do I tell you why? Why is this timeline accelerated? Why did I change direction? Why did we lay off 10 percent of the department? Do I explain the why behind the what? If I ask you to give up a weekend to finish a project, is it clear why that's important and why I would even ask? If you don't regularly know the why, it signals distrust.

Word choice telegraphs intention and belief, as well as a desire for control or collaboration, lecture or dialogue, trust or distrust. You can see trust at work; you can hear it, too. What are you hearing in others' words? What are they hearing in yours?

 More tips about how to create and operate with trust at work:

You'll find more tips and how-tos in my book: Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation