If You Want to Rebuild Trust at Work, Remember These 3 C's

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By Paul White

One of the core elements of a toxic workplace is lack of trust between co-workers and supervisors across the organization.

There are lots of different relationships in an organization and also various directions in which trust flows (from you to your co-worker, from your co-worker to you, between the two of you reciprocally and so on).

Let's focus on one specific type of relationship and direction: when you don't trust one or more of your co-workers.

Understanding the Nature of Trust

Trust is the reliance on the integrity, strength or ability of a person or thing. Essentially, trust is the confidence that a person can and will do what he or she claims he or she is able to.

Trust consists of: Competence + Character + Consistency.
  • Competence: that the person has the capability (knowledge, experience, ability) to complete the task.
  • Character: that he or she has integrity, dependability and my interest at heart (versus just his or her own interests).
  • Consistency: that he or she is able to and will follow through in doing the task repeatedly and consistently (as opposed to inconsistently or infrequently).

Like a three-legged stool, if any component is missing, trust will not occur or continue. Try this out as a mental experiment – see if you can think of a situation where you would trust another person to complete a task without one of these three components.

A second key aspect for understanding the nature of trust in relationships is that trust is situation specific. That is, trust is not actually a global entity, although we tend to talk about it that way ("I don't trust Janice"). Rather, trust has to do with a specific situation, as in, "I don't trust Janice to admit that she made a mistake when the project comes up in the staff meeting today." Conversely, you may trust Janice not to physically attack you (hopefully), or you may have confidence she won't steal your wallet and use your credit cards.

So, it is helpful when talking about (or thinking about) not trusting one of your co-workers to define more specifically:

a) What is the situation in which you doubt his or her trustworthiness?

b) Which aspects of trust (a lack of competence, lack of character or a lack of consistency) lead you to question your colleague's trustworthiness in this situation?

More clearly defining the basis and context for your lack of trust will help you identify potential action steps for you. Probably more importantly, you will more clearly communicate to others what the real issue is for you (either to the co-worker themselves, or to someone else directly involved in the situation).

Specifying the situation and the area of concern to you allows for a problem-solving approach to be utilized – to increase their competence, or to put safeguards in place with regards to character or consistency issues. Otherwise, you and others are stuck with your feeling that you don't trust your colleague.

Common Areas of Mistrust in Work Relationships

Here are common situations where one person doesn't trust another colleague to:
  • Tell the truth. Get the task done on time.
  • Do quality work. Keep information confidential.
  • Show up on time for meetings. Show up prepared for meetings.
  • Not undercut you. Not gossip about you.
  • Not say something stupid in front of a client or your supervisor.

What Do You Do?

Obviously, the critical question is: "Now what?" The reality is: the first step is to clarify the situation(s) in which you have a hard time trusting your colleague. One way to do this is to say to yourself: "I am not confident Jenny will (or will be able to) ... [define the task]." Then specify which areas (competence, character, consistency) are of concern to you.

The next step depends on the nature of your business relationship to the other individual – do you supervise him or her directly? Is he or she a colleague in your department? Is he or she your supervisor or a leader above you? Or is he or she someone you work with, but in a different department or division of the company?

Here are some guiding principles.

*First, wait, reflect, observe and consider before you say anything. You can't take back your words once you say them. So be cautious before you start.

*Second, if you're going to say anything either talk directly to the other person (if you supervise him or her or work directly with him or her), or talk to your supervisor about the situation. Don't talk to someone else about him or her or your lack of trust, unless he or she has a direct leadership role in the situation. Talking about the person to someone else typically leads nowhere positively.

*Third, give specific examples that illustrate why you lack confidence in the person's competence, a specific character quality or consistency. Don't talk in vague generalities. If you can't cite any specifics, then you shouldn't raise the issue ("It's just a feeling I have" isn't sufficient).

*Finally, work together (either with the person or your supervisor) to set up parameters around a task related to the area of doubt, and let him or her demonstrate his or her trustworthiness (or not) in this situation. Then, hopefully, you can reset and move on to another task, and another, and together you can rebuild the trust you have in him or her.

One word of caution: if your lack of trust in the person comes from the area of character, and specifically in the areas of honesty, integrity or his or her being concerned about what is best for you, then be careful. Go slowly in trusting him or her.

Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, speaker and consultant who makes work relationships work. He is co-author, with Dr. Gary Chapman, of "The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace" (2011), "Rising Above a Toxic Workplace" (2014) and "Sync or Swim" (2014). He blogs at AppreciationatWork.com.
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