Remember what “trust-building” in corporate culture used to look like? Two-day retreats where team members in event-themed shirts were “encouraged” to walk on hot coals and fall backward into a crowd of co-workers. Now, as someone who is a certified fire-walker (as is the lovely Christy), I can attest to how these exercises do bring participants out of their comfort zone and into a circle of trust. However, at these big corporate retreats, the risk/trust onus was always on the team members. Other than a potentially large bar tab (or medical bills), the company itself took no risk. And worse, the remaining 363 days of the year were business as usual.

Though I’ve never been part of corporate America, I imagine that those practices still go on somewhere. Thankfully, however, our collective mindset has evolved to now understand that trust-building isn't an occasional spectacle, it's a daily, positive and intentional effort that should be woven into the fabric of our workplaces.

Why is workplace trust important? 

When team members trust their leaders and each other, magic happens — they collaborate, communicate effectively, and go the extra mile for the success of the company. A trust-filled culture not only makes the office a happier place but also boosts productivity, enhances team member retention and sets the stage for overall company triumph.

So, what exactly does trust look like to your team?

More than just a warm, fuzzy feeling, trust is knowing that your leadership team truly understands your unique abilities and has put you on a path to success. It’s knowing that there is transparency in operations, clarity in communications and consistency in policy and practices. It’s knowing that your leaders not only listen but respond, with both words and actions that are steeped in integrity. Lastly, it’s knowing that your leadership will not let you flounder or fail without the consistent training and guidance needed for your role. In the workplace, trust is the secret sauce for strong relationships and a collaborative team dynamic.

Sounds great, right? I’m sure there’s not one leader reading this that does not want that for their team and their company. However, all-out trust doesn’t happen overnight, so let's dive into ways you can understand and leverage psychological principles to create a positive and collaborative environment.

Promote open communication

Open communication fosters a sense of psychological safety, a key component in building trust. When individuals feel safe expressing their ideas, concerns or feedback, without fear of negative consequences, it enhances their overall sense of well-being.

One way to achieve this is to encourage transparent communication at all levels. Leaders should actively listen, provide constructive feedback, and create an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions.

Demonstrate consistency and reliability

The brain seeks patterns and predictability. Consistent behavior builds a sense of reliability, which contributes to trust. This is because the brain finds comfort and security in familiar and dependable situations. You can set the pattern of reliability by consistently delivering on promises, meeting deadlines, and maintain reliable policies and procedures. Leaders who demonstrate consistency in their actions and decision-making contribute to a workplace where team members can also, in turn, rely on one another. Trust is contagious!

Encourage collaboration and team building

Humans are social beings, and the brain is wired to seek social connection. Collaborative efforts trigger the release of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter associated with trust and bonding. A great way to accomplish team building is through group training.

Make no mistake, consistent group training in the workplace acts as a powerful catalyst for encouraging collaboration and team building. Through regular and structured training sessions, your team will not only hone and scale up their skills, but they also engage in shared learning experiences as they collaborate on problem-solving, shared insights, and the collective navigation challenges. This helps establish common ground for team members to experience collective growth and trust.

Acknowledge and learn from “mistakes”

As you may be aware, I don’t believe in mistakes, just opportunities to learn. Defaulting to “learning” mode isn’t always easy when things go awry, but the reward is there if you’re willing. Start by reevaluating your own perspective on this. Leaders should set the tone by admitting and analyzing their own “mistakes,” which, in turn, creates an environment where team members feel safe to do the same. The brain responds positively when an individual takes responsibility for their actions, and it’s good for the soul when you’re given the grace to learn from them.

Encourage authenticity for overall well-being

Maslow's hierarchy of needs highlights the importance of fulfilling the most basic needs for psychological well-being. Two of them focus on the feelings of “self-actualization” and “belonging.” The freedom of authenticity creates a sense of belonging closely tied to well-being. The brain responds to a supportive and authentic environment by releasing neurotransmitters associated with happiness and relaxation.

As leaders, you should set the tone by sharing your own challenges and setbacks, signaling to your team that authenticity is not only accepted but valued. Think of it as building a bridge of trust on which team members can openly discuss their professional aspirations and personal development goals with their managers.

Encourage managers to provide support and resources for skill development, whether it's through training programs, mentorship opportunities or exposure to challenging projects. This approach allows your team to bring their authentic selves to work by aligning their career paths with their unique skills and aspirations. By investing in individual growth and authenticity, companies create a more engaged and empowered workforce.

Promote open feedback and recognition

Open, constructive feedback and recognition allow team members to feel valued for their contributions while providing a softer landing when critiques are in order. This not only promotes a sense of trust, but you’ll probably see productivity go through the roof. Leaders should model this behavior by openly acknowledging and addressing their own areas for improvement. This approach promotes an environment where individuals can be transparent about their strengths and areas for development, contributing to a culture of mutual trust.

Lead by example

As leaders, it's time to channel your inner role models. Show your team the kind of behavior you want to see — be honest, communicate openly, and follow through on your commitments. When your team sees you acting with integrity, transparency and authenticity, they're likely to follow. Although the road to all-out trust may have its hills and valleys, it’s way more rewarding than treading the hot coals of indifference.