The 4 Foundations You Need to Build Trust in the Workplace

build trust in the workplace

Trust is a fickle thing. It takes time to build and can be destroyed in a heartbeat. In the workplace, trust is undeniably important. The level of trust an employee has for his or her peers and leadership often defines the line between a happy, engaged worker and an unproductive body filling a cubicle chair.

Yes, trust is a critical component of every successful workplace culture. So why is it so difficult to achieve?

Here’s what we know: There are plenty of studies, reports, stats and conjecture about how many employees do or do not trust their employers. I cited one such study in a past article about the connection between levels of employee engagement and trust.

But we don’t need to rely on these studies or stats to understand the importance of trust. You likely already know how a lack of trust manifests itself at work. You’ve experienced that feeling of dread that creeps in on Sunday afternoon because you have to face your boss again on Monday. You know what it feels like to depend on a teammate or employee who ultimately lets you down, leaving you scrambling to meet a project deadline on your own.

To better understand the challenge of building trust in the workplace, let’s dig into some of the deeper behavioral aspects at play.


“At the most basic level, the need for trust implies one fundamental fact: you’re vulnerable,” writes David DeSteno, director of Northeastern University’s Social Emotions Lab, in his book, The Truth About Trust: How it Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More. “The ability to satisfy your needs or obtain the outcomes you desire is not entirely under your control…

“The social lives of humans are characterized by a never-ending struggle between different types of desires,” DeSteno continues. “Desires favoring selfish versus selfless goals, desires focused on immediate gratification versus long-term benefit, desires stemming from the conscious versus unconscious minds.”

Very seldom do we equate the idea of vulnerability with trust in the workplace. We often relate trust more to dependability or capability. ‘I trust Joe to handle this client meeting for me because he’s one of the best salespeople on our team.’ Or, ‘I trust my boss because she knows more about the inner-workings of the company better than anyone else.’

But what happens when you have to put your trust in the new girl who started last week? How do you assign a new project to an employee without any reference to past performance? At some point, you must recognize your vulnerability and accept the risk.


Let me ask you this: Why do you lie to other people?

I’m not asking if you lie. We all do at one time or another. Typically we lie because we’re fearful. As one insightful article points out, “We do it because we’d rather live with the long-term consequences of lying to ourselves and others than face the temporary pain of the truth.”

If you’re behind on a project, for example, you might stretch the truth and tell your manager you’re much farther ahead than you are. You want to make a good impression, after all. And if you’re honest, it might only disappoint them.

Or, how about the CEO who claims much higher performance numbers to their team in the company’s quarterly meeting? He might not want to convey just how dire the company’s position is, so he wraps the truth in a sweet, candy-coated shell of half-truths, vague facts, or inflated numbers.

We may want to avoid the temporary pain of the truth, but these behaviors erode trust on both sides of the table. Despite your best intentions, it’s always better to push through your fear and vulnerability and own up to the reality of the situation.


While it’s become somewhat of a buzzword over the past several years, it’s important to recognize the role of empathy in building trust.

Empathy is having a shared understanding of how others feel. It is often confused with pity, sympathy, or compassion, which are reactions to others. Empathy, however, is more about understanding things from someone else’s point of view. This article does a nice job of explaining the difference.

Brené Brown is perhaps the most widely known researcher and author on the topic of empathy. In her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brown outlines nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:

  • To be able to see the world as others see it
  • To be nonjudgmental
  • To understand another person’s feelings
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings

Empathy is the foundation for almost every healthy relationship in the workplace.

build trust in the workplaceHow well do you know your employees? Can you tell me with confidence how they feel about their work? How do they feel about their environment? Or their coworkers? And how do you expect to trust them if you don’t first understand how they feel?

How well do you know your boss? Do you understand the motivation behind his or her decisions? Do you understand his or her expectations of you, your team, or the direction of the company?

Knowing the answers to these types of questions allows us to understand others and feel true empathy, not just sympathy.


Tying together the above considerations, the linchpin to trust in the workplace rests on the shoulders of good communication.

“You can’t just say, ‘Trust me’—President Nixon ran that one into the ground,” says respected Economist, Dr. John F. Helliwell, in an interview with Gallup. “You’ve got to actually do something in terms of behavior, and it’s ideal if you don’t do it as a trust-building exercise. You see, trust is like happiness: Happiness is great, but the search for happiness is destructive. Happiness is the consequence of the things you do, and so is trust. A lot of the psychological evidence says that people gain a whole lot in terms of wellbeing when they do things together and do things together for other people.”

Open, honest, and consistent communication, both verbally and behaviorally, makes all the difference. And it will sometimes mean you have to be vulnerable in your feelings. You will have to empathize with your coworkers. You must be consistent in your message and reinforce it through behaviors.

It’s important to recognize that you may not have all the answers, and you may not agree with others all the time. Having a dialogue around issues that are important to you and your colleagues isn’t always comfortable, but it’s necessary to establish a foundation of psychological safety—knowing you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Closing Thoughts

“The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common,” says writes Brené Brown in her latest book, Rising Strong. “First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.”

As you can see by now, trust is an intricate and sometimes difficult act, and there are many emotional and logical factors at play. Your own feelings about risk and vulnerability, your ability to empathize with others, and other peoples’ values, assumptions, and behaviors all play a role. Recognizing these behaviors in yourself, and making an intentional effort to fight through discomfort and honestly communicate with each other will help create a foundation of trust in your organization.