Who Do You Trust?

Trust between individuals is essential to a productive work environment. These are some barriers to building trust and how to overcome them.

I often start classes I am teaching with the simple question: Tell me who is the person you trust the most in this class?

I go on to tell them that they can’t pick their boss (if their boss is in the class) because it is too early in the day to suck up to your boss – only half kidding.

The purpose of the question is to start a discussion on trust, but also to select someone who is responsible for calling the breaks, the lunch hour and the end of the day. Once the most trusted person is selected by the group, I then tell that person he or she has the responsibility to set the break and lunch times and to call the end of the session. S/he also has the responsibility to get everyone back in the room ready to go when the breaks are over.

Most people like setting and calling the breaks but are not so wild about the responsibility of getting people back in the room. I also tell them that at the end of the class we will find out whether the most trusted person has been deserving of their trust.

The vast majority of “most trusted” people do an excellent job but some fail miserably. The exercise demonstrates two important characteristics of trust. It gives tremendous power to the person who is trusted. In this case, it gave the most trusted the sole authority to set the break times.

However, along with that power comes responsibility. Some are willing to take the power but not fulfill the responsibility which requires them to be back on time and make sure everyone else is on time as well. This exercise has very little impact on the participants other than not getting their breaks on time if the wrong person is chosen, but in the workplace, choosing who you trust and being seen as trustworthy can have great impact on an employee’s job and the productivity of the organization.

We live in a world where trust has become just as important as ever but very rarely achieved. In this epoch, if you disagree with something it is considered “fake news” and not worthy of consideration, but if you agree with it, regardless of whether there are any legitimate facts to support your view, it is the truth. Fact checking seems to have little relevance because many already have a preconceived position that can’t be shaken by someone else’s view of fact no matter how well grounded. Some people believe they are entitled to their own set of “alternative facts” whatever they may be. This article is not about the political world we live in but about the basics of what is trust and whether or not you can achieve it in the workplace.

A Lack of Effective Communication

I have dedicated a significant part of my career to helping people with problems at work. Most of the problems have come in the form of strained or broken relationships between labor and management or between supervisors and employees. Frequently the problems are based on the same concern: the inability or reluctance to communicate effectively. This lack of effective communication resulted in a loss of trust which then resulted in lost productivity and sometimes endless litigation.

Effective communication and trust go hand in hand. A lack of trust will inhibit effective communication just as a lack of effective communication will negatively affect trust.

Developing effective communication skills, attitudes and processes can build trust in the workplace. However, achieving effective communication and trust is more complicated than most anticipate. When faced with packed schedules, some supervisors don’t prioritize communication versus other work place demands. Some simply just don’t know how to be effective communicators. Employees have the same problems with both time available and lack of skills.

What is Trust?

The best way to define trust in a relationship is to ask the other participants in the relationship what does trust mean to them. Everyone may have slightly different definitions in their own minds, but will most likely agree on certain basic requirements: reliance on the honesty, dependability and strength of character of a person who is trusted. A supervisor may believe they exhibit all the characteristics for being trusted, but in fact may not be trusted. Gaining back trust can be a difficult undertaking.

Barriers to Trust

The difficulty in regaining trust may be based on the barriers to trust which may have come in existence. Barriers to trust develop in the workplace based on a number of different factors.

One barrier can be as the result of past experiences of employees interacting with their supervisors. These past interactions establish an employee’s belief as to whether a supervisor can be trusted. Once someone determines another person’s trustworthiness or lack of trustworthiness, it is very difficult to change that opinion. Consider the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice shame on me.” That is how many employees feel. 

Another barrier to trust can be personality. There is probably someone in your life who you just don’t like, much less trust. That can be resolved by just not associating with that person again. However, it’s not so easy to do that when that person is an employee’s supervisor.

Personality issues do not just go away, and sometimes supervisors and employees are just not a good fit. Although it may be tempting to start fresh by reassigning certain individuals to different projects and work units, these temporary solutions may not necessarily cure the underlying causes of the distrust for a supervisor or employee. The problem may just have been relocated to a new venue. 

There is a cultural belief in this country that to be trusted a person must be able to look you in the eye. In my days doing litigation I met some incredibly skilled liars who had absolutely no problems telling the most egregious lies while looking me straight in the eye. By the same token, some people are being perfectly honest and truthful but are unable to look you in the eye. Some cultures find it disrespectful to look someone in the eye. This is a cultural difference which should be accommodated when dealing with employees and supervisors.

It can take years to build trust, and yet a single transaction can result in the total loss of trust. Barriers to trust can be eliminated or reduced but it takes a commitment and hard work.

First, a person must be willing to acknowledge a barrier exists. The hardest part is getting to a point where those involved are willing to take a chance on doing something different. Exploring the past experiences with skillful help when needed can a go a long way to restoring the past damage to a relationship.

Regaining Trust

The best way to build back lost trust is to confront its loss. One has to be willing to accept the risk of being betrayed again, and one must commit to communicating in ways they would not usually communicate with someone they did not trust.

Communication is the first process that must be improved, for without improved communication there is little hope of restoring trust. Commitments to change the way communication is done must be clearly understood and contain safeguards and rules for appropriate behavior. 

Issues that led to a loss of trust cannot be ignored or wished into nonexistence. Therefore, supervisors and employees must eventually discuss the events and conditions that led to loss of trust. Once there is a mutual understanding of the causes, participants must commit to:

  1. Forget things that resulted from misunderstandings and not from malice. Most people do not ever forget a perceived wrong done to them, however, when presented with facts previously unknown they may start the process of coming to understand better what actually took place. Some people may never entirely forget; however, they may come to understand that they were mistaken in their initial perception of past events. Emotions can cloud our judgment. When we are able to see things more clearly in retrospect, we may more easily be able to let go of our reasons for losing trust.
  1. Forgive and seek forgiveness for things that were done and have been acknowledged as inappropriate but are impossible to fix. Although past actions cannot always be rectified, actively accepting and/or giving a sincere apology may start you down the road to forgiveness. Most people have the innate ability to forgive transgressions as long as they do not reoccur and they believe the perpetrator of the wrong is truly sorry. 
  1. Fix things that can be fixed in order to demonstrate a sincere desire to move forward in the relationship. Doing this can display your good faith to the other party, your willingness to make amends, and your commitment to rebuilding trust. However, once a commitment is made to fix something it is going to be all important to the future health of the relationship for the party agreeing to fix something to follow through and make the fix. 

I have used these three concepts to work with groups that have significant trust issues. A well-guided discussion can start the forgetting process by illuminating facts which might not have been known or which might have been misunderstood at the time. Acknowledging and forgiving wrongdoings can indicate willingness to rebuild trust. Fixing problems is another way to concretely prove that you want to move the relationship in the direction of trust. You must take a risk that both parties to the discussion will live up to the commitments they have made to forget, forgive and fix.


The kind of supervisor or employee you are will be reflected in how effectively you communicate and the level of trust with which you are held. Communicating effectively takes hard work and skills. To have successful communication and trust in the work place takes the commitment of both supervisors and employees. It is not the job of the supervisor alone to communicate; it is the mutual responsibility of all in the work place to communicate effectively.

Maintaining trust takes the same amount of effort if not more. To regain lost trust can take significantly more effort and determination. One side cannot regain the trust if the others in the relationship also do not commit to the new trusting atmosphere. However, the hard work and commitment that goes into successful communication and achieving high levels of trust will be greatly repaid by the increased productivity of the workforce, greater retention of employees and the high level of satisfaction of all employees and supervisors. 

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email info@jsafed.com or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.