Building Workplace Trust No Matter Where You’re Working

Originally published at

“The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is the key professional and personal competency of our time.” – Stephen Covey

Sheri Brake, Managing Director and Consultant at AccessHR Inc., a Calgary based firm, has spent the past two years studying the importance of trust and its impact as part of her Employee and Leader Development work. With a client-first approach, she outlines practical ways for employees and leaders to build trust in alternate or unexpected working arrangements such as the current circumstances of COVID-19.

Trust is easily broken and tough to repair, which is why maintaining a strong level of trust between leadership and employees is vital for organizational success. The importance of trust is put to the test in extreme scenarios, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic we currently face. Maintaining trust is critical as we work from home, host important meetings over conference calls, collaborate virtually, make critical decisions and lead our teams from a distance.

So, what is trust? The Oxford dictionary defines trust as “Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”

The reality is that corporate or organizational trustworthiness depends heavily on the trustworthiness of the leaders of that organization. To be a trustworthy leader, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer data shows that leaders must lead with honesty, integrity, transparency, consistency, authenticity, and decisiveness (in that order). If you reflect for a minute on your most trusted resource for information regarding the pandemic, do you recognize these characteristics?

Levels of Trust

Cenera’s organization assessment work focuses on trust as a key variable in organization performance. In John Maxwell’s work, he identified four distinct levels of trust that happen to directly correlate with measures of organizational productivity, performance, engagement and retention.

These levels are as follows:

  • Negotiated Trust: This is the lowest level of trust and it requires a formal agreement. People will not complete, contribute or share more than they are formally required to do.
  • Conditional Trust: At this level people will give benefit of the doubt yet reserve full or final judgment until they observe behaviours. In practice, this is a “wait and see” approach. Failure to meet expectations results in a reduction of trust.
  • Cooperative Trust: People have inherent expectations of each other and failing to meet those expectations does not always result in erosion of trust. At this level, there is confidence that everyone is working toward collective success.
  • Unconditional Trust: When this level of trust exists, people rely on the word of one another without question and openly take responsibility for their actions. Individuals proactively find ways to add value to others in support of the “greater good”.

Calculating Trustworthiness

Prior to undertaking an effort to improve the level of trust, it is helpful to know how we calculate interpersonal trust. In Robert M. Galford & Anne Seibold Drapeau’s, The Trusted Leader, a simple equation explains the mental process we go through, often subconsciously, when assessing whether we trust another person.

Note: Each variable is out of 10, with 10 being a favourable score in the numerator and 1 being a favourable score in the denominator.

Trustworthiness = (C + R + I / SO)

The variables are as follows:

  • Credibility: More than a display of education and experience. Instead, it’s trusting what someone knows and says based on their evident degree of mastery, their ability to apply that expertise, and their willingness to be upfront about their limitations.
  • Reliability: Comprised of consistency, dependability, and follow-through, doing what you say you will do. Reliability takes time to establish and can be difficult to accurately assess in the short term.
  • Intimacy: Demonstrated by an overall awareness that circumstances and decisions have a personal impact on your team. It’s about showing empathy and sensitivity and also willingness and ability to create a degree of safety for others when they are vulnerable.
  • Self-Orientation: Measured by the degree to which your focus is primarily on your own concerns, benefits or outcomes.

This calculation creates a framework against which we can validate our instinct or gut feel. This application is a personal process based on your personal history, knowledge, experience and bias. While not scientific, this calculation can be a useful way to evaluate an eroded relationship and identify ways to build or repair it.

Build and Maintain Trust

To build and maintain trust, you must increase the numerator variables and/or decrease the denominator variable. Drawing on independent study, client case studies and the certification process for “Trust at Work” with William Benner, Charles Feltman and Richard Hews, we have identified ways to maintain and build trust with your co-workers as you work remotely and collaborate on projects during this time:

  1. Discuss and agree on expectations regarding working hours and responsiveness both as individuals and as teams. Meet the expectations.
  2. Keep your calendar updated with as much detail as is appropriate, even if the calendar says, “sanity walk” or “eat lunch with my kids”. By acknowledging and accommodating this strange reality that we find ourselves in, we increase transparency, reliability and intimacy.
  3. Agree on ways to resolve disagreements or conflicts in advance. When possible, communicate face to face via video conference, or alternatively, by phone call. Email should not be used to resolve conflict.
  4. Don’t save up issues or concerns to be addressed when things “return to normal.” It is human nature to avoid difficult conversations and working remotely should not be used as an excuse to let things slide or to avoid addressing concerns.
  5. Finally, start from a position of kindness and understanding. The world is a chaotic place right now, and some days kindness is all we have to offer!

Repair Trust

According to Galford and Drapeau, there are 22 distinct enemies of trust. Largely these fit neatly into three buckets: ineffective communication, destructive behaviour or incidents, and unaddressed conflict. It is important to note that repairing trust is complicated. Occasionally, time combined with consistent behaviour changes can repair trust. More often, repairing a broken relationship requires some difficult and, frankly, awkward conversations.

Preparing to repair:

  1. Ask yourself: 1. Do you believe it’s possible to repair the trust? 2. Are you willing to do the work to improve it? Clarifying these two points affirmatively and stating your commitment, ”I believe this can be fixed and I am willing to do the work”, will set a forward-focused tone rather than one of blame.
  2. Accurately identify how and why the erosion or breach of trust happened. Be receptive to different perspectives and new information. Take accountability for your role or part where appropriate. The outcome of this conversation will determine your next steps. A change in the process? A mediated conversation? Performance management measures?
  3. Follow through. You must be reliable in your commitments to the repair process. Do what you said you would and extend the trust you committed to extending. Acknowledge progress and agree on expectations moving forward. Then move forward.

Tips for Leaders

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer report, almost a third of employees don’t trust their employer. Based on Cenera’s work with clients, employees with low trust are typically skeptical, disengaged, and less productive. There are a number of ways leaders can shift the trust equation:

  • Focus on more than profitability/sustainability. Your credibility will be enhanced by sharing your thoughts and analyses with your team. Be open and honest about the state of the organization and the security of employment.
  • Be approachable. Ensure that employees know how and when they can reach out and reconfirm the process for concerns or complaints
  • Set clear and concise expectations and commitments for your team and then meet yours
  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion: Listen thoughtfully and with intent, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to show that you’re human too.

Remember, building trust takes time and hard work. Trust is earned and as with everything that takes work, building and maintaining trust is worth the effort. To gain trust, we must be willing and open to give trust to our colleagues, leaders, employees, and fellow team members. In uncertain and difficult times starting from a position of trust will serve you well.


AccessHR Inc. provides professional HR consulting services with exceptional quality, creativity and ethical practice. When it comes to supporting clients, we focus on doing the right thing.