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Three Actions to Build Trust in the Workplace

Colleagues talking in a meeting

Have you ever seen a team-building exercise where someone stands in the center of a circle and falls backward expecting to be caught? Then you understand the true concept of trust.

Joel Peterson, Robert L. Joss adjunct professor of management at Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-writer of a book on building trust within organizations, defines trust as giving up control, on some level, to another person. You would never surrender your body to gravity if you didn't genuinely believe your co-workers would keep you off the ground.

How important is trust to your work relationships?

According to Julie Turchin, senior director of Talent Management & Workforce Strategies with University Human Resources, trust is the catalyst for your ability to give and receive feedback constructively, and the inspiration for delegation, which can breed innovative and creative solutions.

Turchin coaches teams across the university and is the program manager for the Stanford Leadership Academy. In her work to help managers and groups perform better, she has witnessed many ways in which a lack of trust can hold back people and projects. While building trust takes some work, she explains, it is far easier to build than to repair.

Here are three ways you can create a culture of trust:

1. Be Clear About Expectations

Peterson writes that accountability is a necessary feature of a high-trust culture, so it is important to clarify expectations early and often. The challenge, Turchin adds, is many people don’t realize when they are being unclear. One activity she uses to illustrate this point in her groups is humming a familiar tune and asking who recognizes it. The tune she hums is "Old McDonald Had a Farm," but in most groups, less than half of participants realize it.

Managers should take time to make sure everyone is singing the same tune in terms of assignments, deadlines, deliverables, and budgeting.

2. Communicate Often

Intentional, frequent communication can also payoff in productivity. People are more receptive to feedback from peers and managers when the source is credible, and will be open to providing input when they trust that there will be follow-through, Turchin says.

One hallmark of an effective team is that they have a culture of feedback, and not just during performance reviews. “Communication often breaks down when things are busy and everyone is moving at 100 miles per hour,” she says. “Regular, intentional feedback can ensure that at least everyone is moving at 100 miles per hour in the same direction.”

3. Let It Go… Really

Allowing someone else to take control is very hard for most people, Turchin admits. But delegating a project and allowing someone to try something new is an enormous way to build trust and develop employees. “When you say, ‘I wouldn’t have done it that way,’ that is not good feedback, and it’s not real delegation,” she adds. “Let them show you new ideas.”

According to Turchin, when managers resist new ideas, they are usually afraid of failure, but failure is great training. “Your employees will trust in your ability to help them grow if they know that failures will be treated as teachable moments.”

Letting go can create the kind of energy that propels teams forward. But you’ll never know your team’s potential if you don’t take risks.

It may be time to place yourself in the center of the circle, cross your arms, and lean back.

Learning at Stanford, Manager Toolkit