7 Ways To Build Trust At Work

Trust is your company's most valuable asset for creating loyal customers and employees. Here's what it takes to ensure your business is trusted.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
September 12, 2013

According to psychologist Robert Plutchik, there are eight primary emotions: fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, trust, anticipation and surprise. Of these, perhaps the most fragile is trust—it's difficult to establish, hard to maintain and easy to break.

It's also a fundamental ingredient in any relationship. In business, trust is one of the most valuable and complex of all your assets: It solidifies your relationship with your customers, helps you increase sales and makes you a better leader.

An article in Scientific American titled "The Neurobiology of Trust" reports that trust is the strongest predictors of a country's wealth. Countries that show low levels of trust tend to be poorer than those showing higher levels.

It's no secret that there's a deficit of trust around the world. The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that globally, trust in the ethics of the business world is very low. Only 18 percent of survey respondents believe that business leaders would tell the truth no matter what. What's more, developed countries place greater trust in small business over big business (76 percent vs. 53 percent), with the U.S. trusting small business over big business even more (86 percent vs. 55 percent).

The Components Of Trust

Research shows that, universally, there are 16 attributes to building trust in business. These can be grouped into five performance clusters, ranked by order of importance: engagement, integrity, products and services, purpose and operations. Let's take a closer look at the top three:

Engagement: Richard Edelman, president of The Edelman Trust, states that values have changed in the past five years. Before 2008, making the numbers and having an outstanding CEO, for example, were part of the important criteria for establishing trust. But these are no longer the primary criteria. Today, trust requires engagement, which means listening to your customers' needs, treating your employees well and putting customers ahead of profits.

Integrity: Integrity has never gone out of style. In an era of skepticism, it's more paramount than ever. Integrity includes having ethical and transparent business practices, and taking responsibility for addressing issues or a crisis.

Products and services: The operative word here is quality—offering high-quality products or services. A close second is being an innovator of new products, services or ideas.

Building Trust

How can you use this information to make sure your business is one that's trusted? Here are seven recommendations:

1. Improve what you offer. Don't be complacent with customers. Think about how you can improve your services. Is there a gap between the service you offer and what customers would prefer? Can you fill the gap? Involve your loyal customers by sending out a survey to ask for their feedback. Make use of customer experience intelligence to strengthen what works and improve what doesn't. If you're not sure how to get started on a customer survey, read The Globe and Mail's The Ground Rules for Effective Customer Surveys.

2. Lower your staff's anxiety level. Emotions have an impact on trust levels in the workplace. A 2005 "Feeling and Believing" study by The Wharton School shows that anger decreases trust and gratitude increases it. Another study on the influence of emotion on trust from Harvard University shows that anxiety is a low certainty emotion which has a negative impact on trust. There are many ways to treat employees well—benefits, perks and choice assignments, for example. But perhaps the most important initiative in that regard is creating a workplace atmosphere that lowers their anxiety.

For example, do you have the kind of culture that makes it safe to make mistakes? Are people free to openly debate and discuss company issues without fear of retribution? Do you arbitrarily change priorities on people? These can all cause unnecessary pressure and worry.

Do you promote competition among members? Highly competitive environments engender fear and anxiety and destroy trust. Employees start to pay attention to eliminating threats and focusing on what keeps them safe. This is often done at the expense of taking risks, working to accomplish more and achieving desired goals. "Don't stick your neck out" becomes the operative phrase.

3. Balance self-interest with service to others. Approaching clients from a strictly mercenary mindset is not a smart move. We all like to win, but consider how you can win by making your customers win. Get to understand your niche customers and what drives their success. Do them favors—sometimes. Bend the rules, if needed. Offer long-term clients some added value or extra service. Try to anticipate what they need. There are many ways to generate goodwill and show customers that they're valued beyond just the revenue they generate for your business.

4. Be open about your mistakes. It's easy to have integrity when all is going well. It's much harder in times of crisis. Yet it is how you act in difficult times that is the greatest measure of your integrity. Take an inspiration from author and management expert Tom Peters, who says, "When you foul up, 'fess up, fast and fastidiously." Don't wait to talk about a mistake that happened until everyone finds out about it on Twitter or through the office rumor mill. And don't sugarcoat what happened. Take swift action to right a wrong. Facing issues squarely and openly, and taking responsibility, whether it's with your employees or your customers, is an important step in preserving trust. 

5. Keep your word no matter what. Trust is like a flower: Once we step on it, it's difficult to revive it. One way we breach trust is when we continually break our promises. If you can't keep a promise to a client, an employee or a colleague, for whatever reason, get back to the person and explain why. Promises often involve small things, but they're important. A study published by The Journal of Management lists 10 conditions of interpersonal trust. Most of them are simple items, such as:

If ______ promised to copy a presentation for me, s/he would follow through.

If ______ and I decided to meet for coffee, I would be certain s/he would be there.

If ______ was late to a meeting, I would guess there was a good reason for the delay.

6. Be consistent. Unpredictability is unsettling for people because it creates uncertainty. Are you the type of boss who's up one day and down the next? When this happens, people come to work not knowing "which way the wind is blowing." Working under these conditions isn't ideal for producing your best work or for dealing with customers in a pleasant and relaxed manner. Bad moods, especially the boss's, spread like a virus, infecting every corner of the business. Practice emotional intelligence by regulating your emotions to effectively foster a healthy work environment.

7. Make trust a learning priority. John F. Kennedy once said, "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other." Make establishing trust a priority in learning for your business and personal leadership. Here are a few helpful resources to consider: Start by taking the free Trust Equation Quiz to gain powerful insights into your trustworthiness level. You'll also get tips on how to increase interpersonal trust and capitalize on your strengths and improve on weaknesses in areas such as credibility and reliability. Also consider reading The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Read more articles on company culture.

Photo: Thinkstock

President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.