The boardroom series: trust

Trust is one of the hardest things to earn and the easiest things to lose. Trusting others, in a work context, is not always easy to do, however, it is often one of the most powerful things you can do. This month, in our challenges in the boardroom series, we are exploring trust, the opportunities it affords you, and how you can start doing it this summer so you can truly switch off on your holiday break. 

Trust breeds trust

Do you remember the first time a boss trusted you? How did it feel? How did it make you want to act?

Studies consistently show that when someone trusts us, we are inclined to act in a trustworthy way. When someone does not trust us, the opposite is true. Trust breeds trust. From a scientific perspective, the reason for this is that when someone trusts us, a chemical called oxytocin is produced. This inspires us to trust others. (If you want to learn more about the neuroscience of trust, I highly recommend this article by Paul J Zak in HBR.) 

Not only does being trusted make us feel good and want to earn that trust we have been offered, it reduces stress and it triggers what is known as intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the motivation that makes us want to do something, for the sake of doing it, rather than just for the reward we might get at the end. When we have intrinsic motivation, we naturally work harder, experience less stress and we get more satisfaction from the work we do. This means that when leaders trust their team, those employees are likely to be more productive, resilient and more fulfilled by their work, which, in turn, inspires intrinsic motivation and further improvements. No wonder that productivity in high-trust organisations is higher than those lacking trust. In fact, PwC reported that “55% of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organisation’s growth”. Furthermore, we see that, because being trusted makes us trust others, employees in high-trust environments collaborate better and are more loyal to their employer.  

Better performance, happier workplaces, improved retention, and enhanced client satisfaction: trust has a huge amount to offer. And did you know that trust is more easily built in stressful situations? Yes, the pressure amplifies the impact. All the more reason to start trusting your team, even in challenging circumstances. 

So, how can we start to trust others? Here are three crucial steps:

Check your ‘Frame of Reference’ 

How often have you explained something very clearly to someone, to find out later that they had a different understanding of what you said? It happens to us all at some point – in conversations, emails and every other form of communication. The reason is that we all see the world through our own ‘frame of reference’. A term coined by Jacqui and Aaron Schiff, what this means is that we all see the world through our own filter, based on our past experiences, beliefs, values and goals, as well as external factors. When we are communicating, we assume that everyone sees the world through the same filter as we do, but they don’t. Each person’s frame of reference is unique so what is blindingly obvious or common sense to us, is a totally alien concept to someone else. 

How do we overcome this? Check your frame of reference. Once you have explained a task or responsibility to someone, ask them to repeat back their understanding of what has been said. You can then ask them what one extra piece of information or resource would help them to understand the task more clearly or efficiently. 

Be prepared to relinquish control 

When we trust someone to do something, we must accept that they will not do it exactly as we would do it. While that may seem obvious, it can be quite hard to accept, as we always assume our way is the best way and are much more comfortable with this approach. Again, this is all informed by our frame of reference. While no one else will replicate your way of doing things, that is not always to say their way or your way is wrong or right, better or worse – it is different.  

We need to accept that, sometimes, it will not be to the standard that we had imagined or hoped for. At this stage we need to let go of perfectionism, asking, ‘is this good enough?’ and ‘what can we all learn from this?’. Often, we find that lessons are more valuable than perfection.  

Keep learning

Not only do moments of trust offer the recipient of that trust the chance to step up, learn and grow, they offer the ‘truster’, the leader who has given than trust, the chance to do the same. Whether a task is done exactly as we hoped, or even better, or whether the outcome seems to be a total fiasco, we can always seek feedback to learn from this experience. The added bonus of soliciting feedback in this way is that it actually stimulates reciprocal trust so that the person you have trusted is more likely to trust you in future.

Three simple questions to ask when asking for feedback are:

  1. what aspects of how I communicated and supported you to do this task were most helpful to you?
  2. which parts of how I communicated and supported you were least helpful?
  3. what one thing could I do differently next time to make your job easier and more fun?

Final thought

As leaders prepare for summer holidays, questions around how much we can trust our teams in our absence are on many people’s minds – Can I really trust them to take that on? What if it all goes wrong? Can I really afford to fully switch off or should I keep checking in with the team? 

As you mull over these thoughts, I encourage you to remember this, Trust is the foundation of workplace culture. Just like any culture, it breeds and grows. In this case, Trust breeds trustworthy and ethical behaviour, it nurtures commitment and loyalty, and it promotes reciprocal trust. With all that as your potential reward, is it worth the risk? I say it is. What do you think?


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