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Trust At Work

Two Minute Training by Maria Simpson

If trust is so important to a team’s and a leader’s success, what exactly is it, how do you develop it, and how do you rebuild it if you have done something, however innocently, to damage it? All good and very complicated questions.
In mediation, we are taught that trust is “dependability over time." It’s important to note that “trust” is a feeling we have for other people, and “dependability” is a behavior that supports trust. If that’s the case, then what other behaviors also support the development and strengthening of trust?
In “The 3 Elements of Trust” Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman identify the three most important behaviors that underlie trust that they found by reviewing data from 360 degree assessments of 87,000 leaders. (
First, positive relationships. They found that positive relationships depend on:

  • staying in touch with the issues and concerns of others (the part of Emotional Intelligence that deals with recognizing the needs and feelings of others);
  • balancing results with concerns of others;
  • generating cooperation among others;
  • resolving conflict;
  • giving honest feedback in a helpful way (what Kenneth Cloke calls “honesty in the content and empathy in the delivery”).

Note that all these items are about a concern for others, a shift in focus from your own career or accomplishments. Without this regard, others will not respond with equal regard for you.
Second, good judgment and expertise. Some years ago a really good manager was thought not to need expertise in an area to manage it, because others on the team would provide the needed expertise, and management was an area of expertise all its own. That perspective was abandoned when there were all too many cases of general managers failing because they did not know enough about the area to know how to make decisions that involved a technical perspective and were often influenced by those who had both greater expertise and a stronger self-interest in the decision than the manager. Exercising thoughtful judgment is also important in decision-making. In addition, the authors found that a leader’s:

  • ideas and opinions based on experience and expertise are sought and trusted by others;
  • expertise is seen as a significant contribution to achieving results;
  • ability to anticipate and respond to problems is valued.

Third, consistency. Here’s where “dependability over time” comes in, “the extent to which leaders walk their talk and do what they say they will do.” They:

  • set a good example;
  • follow-through on commitments;
  • are willing to go above and beyond what is required.

In the statistical analysis described in their article, the authors observe that “being just above average on these skills can have a profound positive effect and, conversely, just being below average can destroy trust.” (emphasis added) “Just above average” is not a very high bar to reach, so trust can be easily achieved, and most of us start a new relationship by trusting the other person, until something happens that challenges that trust. 
Which of the three elements is most important? Relationships had the most substantial impact. If leaders scored high on both consistency and expertise but low on relationships, then their overall trust levels were low. People understand that we are not always consistent, that context and circumstances might drive us to be inconsistent once in a while, and we clearly do not know every single fact about an area, but the one place where we are expected to be consistent and exercise good judgment is in managing our relationships and demonstrating that emotional intelligence of caring about others. In addition, in my experience being an expert and showing good judgment and fairness will make you a good manager but not a great leader. Leaders know how important other people are to their own success and pay attention to building and maintaining relationships.
“[O]nce a relationship is damaged or if was never formed in the first place, it’s difficult for people to trust.” And once damaged, trust is really hard to rebuild. 
So, working on those relationships is key to being seen as trustworthy, and key to managing relationships is managing disagreements among the people with whom you have those relationships. 

Effectively and fairly managing conflict demonstrates all three of the elements of trust: maintaining positive relationships, demonstrating good judgment, and being consistent over time.
Maybe it’s time to brush up on those conflict resolution skills.
About my one-question survey:
I really appreciate the responses I got to my one-question survey on workplace conflict. If you’re still interested in responding, here’s the question again. I’d love to have your feedback.

  1. If you could have 15 minutes of my time to help with anything you need related to workplace conflict, what would you ask me?

That’s it! If you’ve had an experience you’d like to relate, hit reply and write as much or as little as you want. And feel free to forward this to others who might also be interested in commenting. 
Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week. 


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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