Five Ways to Grow a Culture of Trust
Around the Summit offices, we often remind ourselves to “Assume the best about others” and “Give the benefit of the doubt wherever we can.” As staff culture goes, I think we do remarkably well. But we need to be vigilant about cultivating trust, because trust doesn’t come natural to any of us. We’re like cars out of alignment: The moment we take our hands off the wheel, we veer right back into mistrust and suspicion.
Here are five ways we can help a culture of trust grow on our staff.
1. Fill in the gaps with trust.
As Andy Stanley puts it, we all know what it’s like to face a gap between expectation and reality. The meeting started at 2:00 (expectation) but your coworker walks in at 2:20 (reality). An important project goes live (reality) without anyone consulting you (expectation).
When we sense one of these gaps, we have a choice. Our natural tendency is to fill the gap with suspicion: He was late because he’s lazy; she didn’t consult me because she doesn’t value my opinion; he said that because he’s a racist. But cultivating a culture of trust means choosing to fill those gaps with trust instead.
We might think this is difficult, but there’s one person in our lives that we tend to treat this way already—ourselves. Patrick Lencioni (in The Advantage) points out that we all tend to attribute our own negative behaviors to environmental factors. I was late because someone stopped me on the way out the door, and it would have been rude to blow him off. I couldn’t get the assignment done because I have too much on my plate. I didn’t ask Phil for his feedback because I thought he was out of town. We “fill the gap with trust” all the time with ourselves. What we need to do is to extend the same kindness to others.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” right? Shouldn’t the Golden Rule extend to the way we interpret others’ actions?
Filling the gaps with trust doesn’t mean we ignore failure. But if our posture is one of trust, we’ll approach people with questions rather than accusations. We’ll assume that there’s some information we don’t have, so our tone will sound more like, “You aren’t usually like this. Is something going on?”
2. Be a person who engenders trustworthiness.
Building a culture of trust begins with being a person worthy of trust. So if you’re going to be late to a meeting, let people know. If you’re behind on a project, say something before the deadline comes…and goes.
And if you make a mistake, own up to it. (Quickly, too. As Donald Rumsfeld says, bad news doesn’t get better with time.) If you’re a quality worker, then your failures shouldn’t bother those you work with too deeply. Failure, after all, isn’t always the result of poor planning or character flaws; often it’s the natural byproduct of trying something new. Try anything worthwhile for long enough and you’re going to foul up. But what you do when you foul up is huge. Do you cover it up? Push the blame to someone else? Or do you own it? Leaders own their mistakes and use them to improve. The end result is a rising tide in a culture of trust.
3. Promote a culture of trust even when the conflict is not about you.
The operative word here is culture. Your workplace isn’t a silo where you only interact with the people who are relevant to your slice of the job. You interact with all sorts of people all day, even if it’s informal and brief. An interaction doesn’t have to pertain to your job description to move the needle, either toward trust or suspicion. You should think of yourself as an agent whose mission is to promote trust in every interaction.
So, for instance, when you hear a co-worker trashing another co-worker, you step in to defend him. You encourage your peers to fill the gaps with trust. Even if the conflict is about someone that isn’t even on your team, you nip it in the bud. You say, “Let’s assume that our co-workers are smart and have good intentions” so much that people get sick of hearing it.
You can take this too far, of course, and become the nosy Trust Police. But I find that we’re generally more inclined to gossip and backbite than we are to step in and defend people too often. Remember, a culture of suspicion happens automatically; a culture of trust takes intentionality.
4. Push for direct, honest dialogue when someone expresses a problem with another team member.
Tim Challies says that one of the most common phrases pastors should utter is, “Have you spoken to him/her about this?” It can make you feel important to have someone confide in you, but often there is more harm than good in it if they haven’t confronted the other person first.
A culture of suspicion happens automatically; a culture of trust takes intentionality. @jdgreear
Trust and confrontation aren’t opposites. They both exist is a healthy culture. But confrontation has got to be done right—directly, humbly, with an open Bible and open ears. I’m convinced that if we just practiced that, we would diffuse a lot of the conflict that plagues our interpersonal relationships.
5. Know when it’s best just to let something go.
Proverbs 19:11 says, “It is [a person’s] glory to overlook an offense.” There is a time to confront and a time to just let it go. Wisdom knows the balance between the two. For some, the fear of man may prevent us from confronting others when we ought. For others, arrogance may push us to confront issues that would best be addressed by not being addressed. Not every battle is worth waging, and a culture of trust is a big enough win that it’s worth “losing” some small battles along the way.
Ironically, the best way to lead people and encourage them to be trustworthy is to treat them with trust, even when they don’t deserve it. People want to live up the high expectations you give them. Nothing motivates or inspires them like having trust extended to them.
Isn’t that just the gospel way? God doesn’t make us righteous by demanding righteousness, but by extending grace. In the same way, we don’t cultivate trust by demanding it, but by extending it.