Trust in the Workplace — Inspiring Organizations to Achieve Their Best

We’ve all heard that trust in the workplace is critical for any organization to succeed, but we don’t always understand the reasons that it’s so important, nor do we fully understand the consequences that result when trust is lacking.

Trust in the workplace requires true vulnerability, the same level of vulnerability necessary to put your hand in someone else's, even for a handshake, as in this picture.

Let’s first look at what, exactly, trust in the workplace entails — we’re talking about more than “reliability,” or “following through.”

We have to reach a level we call vulnerability-based trust: The idea that you can have confidence in everyone’s motives and believe in everyone’s best intentions on a team.

Under these conditions, people value each other and allow themselves to be vulnerable and open with the rest of the team. Everyone can contribute and give their unfiltered best.

The Makings of Vulnerability-Based Trust in the Workplace

Consistently demonstrating a team’s shared principles in individual decisions and actions allows the members of a team to form reciprocal relationships based on their beliefs in the common purpose of all the stakeholders involved in any given venture.

Sharing these principles is fundamental to developing trust in the workplace or in any other relationship. Some people might call it unity.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”― Ernest Hemingway

Trust must be mutual and reciprocal in order to unlock an organization’s potential.

Trust in the Workplace and the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

We can see the importance of vulnerability-based trust by examining its place as the base of the pyramid that forms the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™. Vulnerability-based trust forms the foundation of the remaining behaviors that lead to a truly effective team.

The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ Model

Each behavior builds on the previous one, ending with superior results — but it all requires the strong foundation of vulnerability-based trust.

Trust One Another

The members of effective teams trust each other on a fundamental level. They are comfortable being vulnerable with each other and can expose their shortcomings, mistakes, and fears. They can be completely open with one another.

Engage in Conflict Around Ideas

When this deep trust exists, team members openly challenge and question each other in a respectful, constructive manner, all in a sincere pursuit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making effective decisions.

Commit to Decisions

Teams that engage in conflict around ideas move past the initial disagreement and reach a place of commitment to decisions, something that’s impossible when team members don’t trust each other enough to present ideas that might receive pushback. Everyone feels assured that all opinions and ideas have been presented and considered.

Hold One Another Accountable

Once the commitment to decisions has been reached, team members can hold each other accountable for adhering to those decisions and standards. They are able to do this as a team and across all boundaries without relying on the team leader to enforce team decisions by means of his or her authority.

Focus on Achieving Collective Results

Teams who have reached this level by actively engaging in the behaviors are more likely to set aside their individual agendas and focus on achieving team-oriented and organizationally focused results. Personal ambition and prestige take a back seat to team success.

The confidence, or trust, that everyone is working toward a common goal and the knowledge that personal success can only be gained by contribution to the collective success of the team must permeate the workplace atmosphere.

The difference between the presence of trust and a lack of trust is seen in the results of an organization’s efforts — a weak foundation leads to poor outcomes, especially in terms of KPIs like productivity and growth.

When Trust in the Workplace Is Lacking

When employees find themselves unable to trust, or when they sense that trust is not being reciprocated, they may feel isolated and unable to be truly vulnerable.

Their instincts tell them that their security is somehow threatened, and they get a deep sense of instability in the situation. They are unwilling to engage in any conflict or present radical or innovative ideas that might receive pushback, and they keep quiet when they see problems in themselves, their work, or their team members out of fear of reprisal.

Feeling themselves in a precarious position, employees begin to ask questions that reveal underlying insecurity, such as the following:

  • What am I supposed to be doing?
  • Do I belong here?
  • Do I have what it takes to succeed?
  • Am I out on a limb and losing value as an employee?
  • What are my coworkers saying about me?
  • Why am I working for this organization?
  • Am I safe to share the information I have?

It’s plain to see that in such a mindset, employees lack the necessary stability to do their best work. They often become distracted, disengaged, irritable, guarded, and defensive — their productivity drops.

When trust is lacking or has been damaged, it often becomes easier for employees to go it alone to keep from standing out. Risk taking is often out of the question. Employees become wary of bringing their best ideas into the open, and playing it safe becomes the norm. Much-needed creativity born from collaborative thinking and discussion is lost.

Team members fail to expose their vulnerability. They may become unwilling to ask for the help they need to accomplish their goals or to grow in their abilities.

People stuck in such a defensive mindset are less likely to accept accountability or responsibility, or to admit failure. The resulting tendency to blame others further compromises trust and perpetuates a cycle of decaying relationships.

Personality disputes develop over prestige and other inconsequential matters — turf wars ensue.

Under these conditions, productivity suffers, great employees are lost, goals remain unmet, and opportunities for growth pass unnoticed or are ignored.

A quagmire develops. Progress and growth, both individually and collectively, grind to a painstaking halt. No organization can achieve its potential or exceed expectations under such circumstances.

When Healthy Trust Is Present in the Workplace

Let’s contrast that unhealthy situation with one where trust in the workplace exists.

Knowing that their coworkers are on the same wavelength, are operating with a high level of character, and are working together with a noticeable sense of collaboration, team members experience fulfillment in their jobs and pride in their collectively achieved results.

Team members are able to be vulnerable without fear of being penalized (or with the understanding that such penalty is acceptable as it will lead to their growth and the growth of the team as a whole). They are willing to admit mistakes, ask for help, present radical ideas, and point out the mistakes of others without worrying that they might anger or hurt them.

The presence of a high level of vulnerability-based trust among teammates results in the following behaviors, all of which increase individual and team effectiveness:

  • Displaying a high level of motivation
  • Embracing goals and objectives
  • Developing out-of-the-box possibilities
  • Becoming more willing to take risks
  • Expressing confidence in one another
  • Understanding clearly what is expected of them
  • Sharing information and collaboration
  • Becoming more creative
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Quickly rebounding from failure

In an environment where these expressions of emotional freedom, developed with trust as a starting point, are experienced as part of the living and breathing organizational culture, employees become motivated and confident. They strive to achieve their best.

Such trust in the workplace serves as a foundation for the many other behaviors that empower individuals to meet and exceed expectations — to experience success.

Trust in the Workplace — The Key That Unlocks a Team’s Potential

Your organization isn’t made up of a collection of machines. Instead, it’s made up of emotional beings. Their complicated natures need to be unlocked so they can express their creativity, strive for greatness, address their fears and concerns, and overcome failure.

Trust is the key that unlocks the potential leading to the best your team members have to offer.

Only in high-trust environments can maximum results be achieved. That trust, to saturate a workplace thoroughly enough to inspire the best an organization has to offer, must run both horizontally among teammates, and also vertically between leaders and their subordinates.

In fact, we’ve found that the development of trust in the workplace is the catalyst for the quality every great manager or leader possesses: The ability to enable others to act.

Click here to learn more about how trust is utilized by effective leadership to inspire their teams to meet their full potential.


Brett Cooper

Brett is the visionary President of Integris Performance Advisors, a professional development firm he co-founded to expand the existence of healthy organizations and great places to work. By creatively bringing together concepts from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (by Patrick Lencioni), The Leadership Challenge (by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner), and Lean Six Sigma, Brett and his team have influenced thousands of people in government, non-profits and corporate America to work together in more productive, more effective and more human ways. Outside of his role at Integris, Brett dedicates time to serving others in need. He is a volunteer coordinator for the East Bay Stand Down and Stand Down on the Delta, two non-profits serving the needs of San Francisco’s homeless Veteran population. He is also board member and financial sponsor for Partners in Sustainable Learning, whose mission is to bring early childhood education to marginalized communities in the developing world (current projects are underway in Nepal).