What it takes to rebuild trust at work

By Sarah Babb BA, PDM, MBA (cum laude), PhD, Partner, Laminar Leadership, Professional Associate GIBS

Many, if not most of us, have reported feelings of burnout, exhaustion, extreme stress, and even fatigue. To some extent, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this on with the multitude of disruptions it has thrust on us at work and at home. And when you find yourself in an unsupportive work environment, this stress is exacerbated to a disproportionate level.

When we feel our immediate manager does not have our back and may have let us down or may even be micromanaging us as we work from home, our trust is broken. When trust is broken, a toxic environment emerges which is damaging to our mental and emotional wellbeing, as we do our best to meet work targets and deliverables and often override our personal needs. We may resort to personal protection tactics with a fight-flight or freeze response, may retreat, or become defensive or elusive. An unhealthy pattern emerges of low trust and resentment. When trust is broken, it is incredibly hard to be engaged and productive, as we expend energy second-guessing our manager or even ourselves. A spiral of distrust, and even low self-esteem and self-confidence, ensues.

Such betrayal damages individuals, relationships, and performance. It robs people of their ability to believe in themselves and diminishes their capacity to contribute wholeheartedly to the organization. When people feel betrayed, they pull back. Morale declines, as does productivity’ (Reina and Reina)

The question is whether we can break the spiral of mistrust. Can we rebuild trust in the workplace when it is broken?

Interestingly, research has found the powerful effect of trust on our performance and wellbeing. Zak found that respondents in high-trust organisations had 106% more energy, were 76% more engaged at work, and were 50% more productive. A high-trust culture was found to improve how people treat one another and themselves, as 40% experience less burnout and 41% felt a greater sense of accomplishment.

Zak also found that trust can be intentionally built, and his extensive neuroscience experiments and research found eight key management behaviours that stimulate the production of oxytocin, a brain chemical that facilitates teamwork. These eight management behaviours are:

  • Recognise excellence
  • Induce ‘challenge stress’
  • Give people discretion in how they do their work
  • Enable job crafting
  • Share information broadly
  • Intentionally build relationships
  • Facilitate whole-person growth
  • Show vulnerability

Certainly, managers who have managed in this way during the pandemic have built trustworthiness, credibility and engagement.

Rebuilding trust when it is broken is not simply a case of beginning to follow new habits. Breaking distrust requires extra effort from managers, starting with an open and sincere commitment to do so. Trust can be rebuilt, but when working from a deficit, the gap needs to be filled before trust can be built. This requires a recommitment to a different culture and way of working as well as some effort to rebuild and remain on course. So, managers need to put in some effort to break the distrust cycle before they can rebuild relationships. Moving from −10 to 0 is imperative before positive patterns can be established. Consistency and authenticity are essential for any trust to be built.

Rebuilding trust as leaders

When individual leaders commit to rebuilding trust, ways of practising and building these new habits must be established.

Small, regular signs of vulnerability and consistent assurances of trustworthiness are essential to building some modicum of relationship. It is up to the leaders of teams to be transparent and open and to show their own vulnerability. If need be, conversations with an external party can be facilitated to express and clear up pent-up hurt and move to a place of forgiveness and healing. A team can remain stuck unless there is some way of letting go.

Many leaders find this hard, and it will undoubtedly be a potentially awkward conversation unless it takes place in a way that mirrors psychological safety. The best way to get to change is through action. For example, leaders can put challenges on the table that require everybody’s input and commitment as a way of moving to new ways of being.

Leader humility, authenticity, and openness instils trust and psychological safety. In turn, trust and psychological safety empower individuals and teams to perform at their highest capabilities. Additionally, continuously learning teams are essential for keeping pace with and effectively navigating 3-D change (Chima and Gutman)

Hurley outlined a model around the decision to trust which he suggested leaders can use to rebuild broken trust. The author outlines practical of managing trust taking into account these factors: dealing with low risk tolerance, offering a sense of security and raising comfort levels, allowing for an adjustment period, addressing and providing power opportunities, emphasising shared interests and the collective, demonstrate genuine benevolent concern for others, demonstrate capability, model integrity and increase frequency and candour of communication and build relationships. These acts can be built into the organisational dynamics and culture as well.

One powerful way to build a leader’s capability in building psychological safety and rebuilding trust is to set up leadership circles in which the leaders learn and practise these ways of working themselves. The leadership circles provide sanctuaries and safe spaces for the leaders themselves to engage in courageous conversations and to model trust and psychological safety among themselves. In this way, new ways of working with trust are built on a personal level and psychological safety is built on a practical work level. From here, leaders can then model and apply these practices within their own teams.

But if people feel too much distress, they will fight, flee, or freeze … [This] requires [leadership] to create a culture of courageous conversations. In a period of sustained uncertainty, the most difficult topics must be discussed. Dissenters who can provide crucial insights need to be protected from the organizational pressure to remain silent. Executives need to listen to unfamiliar voices and set the tone for candor and risk taking (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky)

Rebuilding trust in ourselves

We lose faith in ourselves when we hold back, stop sharing ideas and stop asking. Our self-confidence may plummet. So, we need to check in with ourselves too and ask whether we are being trustworthy and whether we are crafting candour and vulnerability through our contributions. This has been the subject of much debate, as some businesses turn to training their employees and team members to ‘speak up’. We can all learn such skills, but if the leadership and overarching organisational tone is not one of psychological safety, no amount of training will increase the amount of sharing from team members.

Part of building our trust in ourselves is learning self-compassion. With raised self-awareness we first need to acknowledge with no judgement, the level of hurt or trauma we may have experienced in an unsafe environment.  From here we can seek support and encouragement to begin to step out and contribute again. Our own self-care of our physical and emotional needs must continue to maintain our sense of confidence. Having confidants and spaces to self-reflect and have support is só important, as we build our emotional agility whereby emotions become a source of data of what is important to us so that we can live by values-based actions.

Trust between leaders and teams can be rebuilt and psychological safety can characterise the new way of working. But it takes commitment and effort to break distrust first and then to rebuild from the ground up. Without a doubt, it is worth it.

Sources

Chima, A and R Gutman, What it takes to lead through an era of exponential change, Harvard Business Review, 29 October 2020.

Edmondson, AC and P Hugander, 4 steps to boost psychological safety at your workplace, Harvard Business Review, 22 June 2021.

Edmondson, AC and Z Lei, Psychological safety: the history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct, The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1:23−43, 2014.

Heifetz, R, A Grashow and M Linsky, Leadership in a (permanent) crisis, Harvard Business Review, July–August 2009.

Hurley, RF, The decision to trust, Harvard Business Review, September 2006.

Lewicki, RJ, DJ Mcallister and RJ Bies, Trust and distrust: new relationships and realities, Academy of Management Review 23(3), 1998.

Reina, DS and ML Reina, Rebuilding trust within organizations, Systems Thinker 17(1), 2006.

Zak, PJ, The neuroscience of trust, Harvard Business Review, January–February 2017.