This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to foster a culture of trust in the workplace? What is the relationship between team trust and company performance?

Trust is integral to human relationships and to leadership. Higher levels of trust in the workplace strongly predict higher organizational performance across a range of markers, including customer loyalty, market share, ethical behavior, and profit growth.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what building trust in the workplace entails in practice.

How to Foster a Climate of Trust in the Workplace

Trust is needed in every type of relationship within a team:

  • From leader to team: You must trust the efforts of other people or you’ll end up as merely a manager or supervisor, micromanaging everyone’s work, instead of a leader. 
  • From team to leader: If your team doesn’t trust you, they won’t follow you. They won’t believe in your vision or put in extra effort to make it come true. 
  • Among team members: Your team members must trust that they can express their thoughts openly and honestly and if they fail at a task, their teammates won’t judge them.

Studies show that people who are trusting are happier and more psychologically well-adjusted than those who see the world with suspicion. Therefore, building trust in the workplace is a foundational step in your success. 

Building trust in the workplace is a three-step process:

  • Be the first to trust.
  • Show empathy.
  • Share knowledge. 

1. Be the First to Trust

Trust must be reciprocal; your team won’t trust in you if you don’t trust in them, and as the leader, you must be the first to demonstrate trust. Trust is contagious, so once you demonstrate it, others are likely to reciprocate. Distrust is contagious, too, so the reverse is also true: If you show that you don’t trust others, they’re unlikely to trust you.

You can’t force others to trust you, but you can earn their trust by respecting them and their abilities. 

  • Allow your team to do the work you assigned them without close oversight. 
  • Encourage them to solve problems on their own. 
  • Empower them to make decisions and to use their expertise in the way they feel best. 

Also demonstrate trust by being open and honest about your goals, concerns, and values. When you reveal this kind of internal information about yourself, people usually view your motivations as more sincere, and they’re likely to respond with similar openness. For example, if you’re working on a new project, you might let your team know that this is the first time you’re leading something like this, and that you’ll need their efforts and expertise to help you. This kind of honesty will encourage them to trust your motives and leadership. 

2. Show Empathy

As jobs become more automated, the real competitive advantage of workers—especially leaders—will be their ability to foster strong relationships. The best leaders will be the ones people see as a partner with whom they want to work, instead of as someone merely issuing orders.

To show empathy for others, treat them respectfully. 

  • When you treat people respectfully, you show them that you accept them for who they are. In doing so, you allow them to feel valued, which motivates them to work harder for you. 
  • It also encourages them to speak freely to you about challenges, with an understanding that you’ll be constructive in your responses. This ensures that they deal with problems proactively.

One of the best ways to show respect for someone is to actively listen to them. Active listening is more than just hearing—it’s engaging in a conversation centered around their thoughts and concerns that makes them feel valued. When you listen actively, you:

  • Ask questions that probe and result in insights.
  • Offer suggestions.
  • Listen to ideas nonjudgmentally so people feel comfortable bouncing thoughts off of you. 

3. Share Knowledge

When you share your knowledge and insights with your team, you reassure them of your competence, which increases their trust in you. Conversely, if you keep information to yourself, they’ll feel you’re protecting your “turf” and looking out for your own interests over their interests, which decreases their trust in you.

Encourage your team members to share information with each other, as well, as this will similarly increase their trust in each other. 

The 3 Steps to Building Trust in the Workplace

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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