Activating Workplace Trust

A few years (and roles) ago, I spoke up to disagree with a member of my company’s leadership team. I was respectful but direct. The response I was met with was open and curious. In the course of discussing my differing point of view, we uncovered a set of ideas and solutions that would end up being valuable to the organization. The team left that meeting shifting course in a more aligned direction, and I left that meeting feeling confident, engaged, and useful. 

When I shared this story with a friend, he was amazed, saying, “I’d never feel safe challenging an idea that came from above me. In fact, I don’t feel comfortable contributing ideas with our leadership in general.” I was struck then, and now, by his choice of the word ‘safe.’ Yet the feeling of trust and safety is one that many teams wrestle with. Especially now.

Workplace trust, long a barometer of organizational health, is currently under siege from a variety of interrelated forces. News of layoffs at the world’s premier companies dominate the headlines, their impact exacerbated by geopolitical and financial markets turmoil. In addition, the ongoing rebalancing of how we work – in-person vs. hybrid vs. remote – has led to new complexities that many companies are having difficulty navigating. 

The pact between employees and employers faces new levels of uncertainty and scrutiny, and in many cases, fear has become the prevailing workplace emotion. And there’s nothing more pernicious than fear undermining a company’s culture. 

Workplace trust – often referred to as psychological safety – is like oxygen: you only know it’s absent once you’ve started to choke. 

I’ve heard the term psychological safety, but what is it really?

Coined by social psychologist and Harvard professor Amy Edmonson, psychological safety is the ability to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career. In the workplace, it is a shared belief held by a company, department or team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking and raising issues. 

At Decker, we talk about this foundation of psychological safety as critical to activating workplace trust. You can’t have trust without safety and inclusion. And you can’t have an innovative, engaged, confident team without fully activating workplace trust. 

Research has shown that workplace trust is one of the most important factors in high-functioning teams. In fact, individuals on teams with high workplace trust are less likely to leave their role (higher loyalty), more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, more likely to bring in more revenue, and are often rated higher in performance by executives. 

What it’s not

It’s easy to think workplace trust is all about ‘being nice’ or making everyone feel comfortable all the time. But, there are plenty of organizations with high levels of politeness and low levels of trust. 

Another assumption is that connection is the antidote to a lack of workplace trust. In fact, most leaders have focused a lot on connection post-pandemic as our teams adjust to the new remote/hybrid world. However, the connection alone may not be enough for our teams to raise issues, step into difficult conversations, and raise challenges. 

So how do you build it? 

Workplace trust is a culture/climate born out of individual and group behaviors. Every team member and leader has a part in building it up or chipping away at the challenge.  It takes rigor, risk, and intention to keep workplace trust moving in the right direction. 

Our new program, Activating Workplace Trust, dives into the communication best practices that support safety on teams. 

Here are a few key things to keep in mind for your teams:

  1. Clarity is key. Establishing clear norms and expectations for collaboration, innovation, and communication does a lot to create a sense of routine, predictability, and safety. 
  2. Engage with high-interest listening. When teammates or direct reports speak up, really listen. Listening isn’t passive. Work to show appreciation, humility, and openness to contributions and challenges. You may not realize it, but that idea may have felt risky to the speaker.
  3. Create space for input. For most people, holding back feels like the safer choice. Set the stage for contribution and explicitly ask for it using open-ended questions like “What else should we consider? What do you think? Is this consistent with your experience?”
  4. Show up with candor, not armor. Brene Brown discusses the concept of armored leadership behavior in her book Dare to Lead. At every level we all have behaviors we default to out of a concern for safety or a lack of trust. Amplifying workplace trust requires that we put that armor aside and demonstrate humility, fallibility, and vulnerability. 
  5. Swap blame with curiosity. Adopt a growth mindset (individually and as a team) that leans into healthy rethinking. Imagine you don’t have all the answers, that curiosity is the key to innovation, conversations breed new insight, and that mistakes can often be fertile grounds for learning. 

Workplace trust is not a one-and-done, nor is it a box to check. It’s a long game, an investment to make, and a stand to take. It’s about communicating and collaborating in a way that continues to reaffirm these best practices. 

To learn more about how to activate workplace trust in your own organization, connect with Decker. 

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