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Trust in the Workplace

When people come to the ombuds office with workplace issues, one of the prominent issues is about trust. Or rather, that trust has been “broken.” People explain how difficult it is to work in an environment where they can’t rely on people to do what they say they will do or provide one direction and later claim that it wasn’t offered. Part of our conversation in the ombuds office is about how to rebuild trust and the focus is usually on “small” steps to create opportunities to rebuild. An April article by Shane Snow (author, journalist, explorer) provides some additional thinking on trust – This Common Approach To Earning Trust Completely Backfires On Leaders.

Per Snow, it turns out that in 1995, faculty at Notre Dame and Purdue studied “trust” and developed a model for how people judge trustworthiness. It was based on Ability, Benevolence and Integrity. (Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman) When someone was consistent in demonstrating their ability, benevolence and integrity, then we were more likely to trust them. Snow notes that the notion of “consistency” was added as a fourth elment of trust based on further research in psychology.

Here’s Snow’s model / presentation of trust.

As Snow believes and explains, trust starts with Benevolence, i.e., the idea that someone cares about you. Then Integrity and Ability cap the trust pillar with Consistency serving as an anchoring aspect. When trust is broken, Snow suggests, building it back depends on which type of “trust” was broken. If Ability aspects break, this can more readily be “fixed” while it is much harder, and Snow suggests it may not be possible, to rebuild broken Benevolence. According to Snow, the “common” mistake made by leaders when seeking to rebuild any trust breach is to focus on ability. “Trust me, I have ___________ degree.” “Trust me, I’ve been at this for ___ years.” I’ve always thought that credentials can provide a starting point; however, trust is something that must be earned in an ongoing manner.

Here’s Snow’s take on rebuilding trust.

In the ombuds office, when thinking about the type of trust issues that show up, the majority are a blend of Integrity and Benevolence. People express concerns that their leaders don’t care about them. Sometimes these issues become more about communication – there isn’t a consistent message of caring. Other considerations are rooted in only thinking about the local environment versus a broader university or system perspective, i.e., the leader is constrained to take a certain action or direction by forces beyond their authority. I often invite people to “go to the balcony” with me to consider their situation from an elevated, big picture perspective. While the baloncy is not the same as a drone’s eye view, it nonetheless, is a helpful vantage point. One can catch their breath, take in the entire situation, and then consider options.

My approach with people interested in rebuilding trust is to ask them to think of small steps to build “something” with the person. My experience is that people will only “do” for others when they have some type of connection/relationship. This could entail routine office activities or responding to requests or anything that “connects” you to the person. These connections are the stepping stones toward opportunities to rebuild trust. It’s my belief that these “mundane” small steps create a foundation where Benevolence can resurface. People can again begin to consider that one cares about them – even in small ways. And once the door opens, it can swing wider. This takes time and is not always the option taken. People may not want to put effort into a rebuild; instead, they may seek employment elsewhere (although more challenging in this time of covid) or just focus on their work as best they can.

Want some help around trust or navigating another work-place issue?

Go Ombuds !