8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 27, 2017
8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust

Crazy Man trusted nobody, and nobody trusted him.

That’s how Dale Ludwig describes his former boss at a public-speaking training company.

Crazy Man listened in on employees’ phone calls. He turned against his favorites without warning. He preached company values he didn’t live by—honesty and fun—and tried to control every moment of everyone’s day.

Related: How to Survive a Micromanaging Boss

“I always assumed I was being observed and I had to keep my head down and do the minimum and not call attention to myself,” Ludwig says.

Twenty-five years later, Ludwig is the founder and president of Turpin Communication, a communication skills company in Chicago. “I trust people to do their jobs and I give them the freedom to do them,” he says. The result: a workplace that’s the polar opposite of Crazy Man’s. “It’s like, Oh boy, here are my friends and we all have interesting work to do and we’re going to do it really well.”

From office to home, from friendship to parenthood to romance, stories like Ludwig’s are legion. Nothing matters more than trust.

“Trust is the basic foundation upon which relationships are built,” says Katherine Crowley, co-author of Working with You Is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself from Emotional Traps at Work and co-owner of a workplace relationships consultancy. “It’s all about reliability, consistency.”

Trust is also confidence that another person has your interests at heart. It’s belief that they will be loyal, honest, capable and kind. When you and those around you trust each other, morale and teamwork soar—along with more tangible rewards. Consider the 2017 “100 Best Companies to Work For,” which is a list produced by the Great Place to Work Institute and Fortune. It’s based on feedback from 232,000 employees around the country, much of which has to do with trustworthiness. Publicly traded companies on the list performed nearly three times better than the stock market overall.

No wonder those who study trust speak of it as currency.

“In business, if there isn’t trust, you’ve got to be very vigilant about whether someone’s taking advantage of you, and that takes a lot of energy,” says John G. Holmes, Ph.D., an emeritus psychology professor at the University of Waterloo and co-author of well-known studies involving trust. Energy spent watching your back is energy not spent on creative solutions. “It’s very costly to not be trusting,” he says. “It stops you from taking important risks that you should take.”

In all relationships—personal and professional—a lack of trust naturally stops people from confiding in each other. “It decreases your chance of being close and being supported,” Holmes says. “It decreases intimacy and elevates stress.” Studies show that low-trust relationships are often doomed.

Lately, as anyone with eyes and ears knows, trust hasn’t exactly been robust in our society. Fear of terrorism sparks wariness of immigrants; political rifts fuel suspicion among friends, neighbors and relatives. In 21 of 28 countries polled by the public-relations firm Edelman, public trust dropped from 2015 to 2016 in at least one of four major institutions (business, government, media and nongovernmental organizations). Though that poll—taken largely before the November 2016 election—showed steady or increased U.S. trust in those same categories, the numbers still weren’t great. Four out of every 10 Americans lacked faith in business and NGOs, and more than five in 10 distrusted government and media. A poll of U.S. voters a few weeks after the election found even lower levels of trust, Edelman reports.

Sobering facts, to be sure. Even so, you have more power than you might think to help turn things around.

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust

“In a low-trust world, more than ever we need leaders and teams and organizations that know how to create trust, to stand for trust,” says Stephen M.R. Covey, author of the best-selling The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything. “When you look at the whole society, it is daunting and you think, I can’t counteract all these huge societal trends, but you can increase trust in your relationships and in your team. And if you can do it in your relationships and in your team, then your team can begin to build trust with other teams and it can ripple out from there. You really can have a profound effect.”

Related: 15 Trust-Building Practices for Leaders

Among the steps most trusted by trustees of trust-building:

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust1. Let the sunshine in.

Kevin Vogelsang felt super-nervous when he sat down for a job interview last year with Ludwig and vice president Greg Owen-Boger. Within minutes, though, his jitters vanished. “They were extremely friendly, not high-pressure, just very genuine in trying to describe what they needed and were looking for,” he recalls. Sometimes during the interview, Ludwig and Owen-Boger spoke with each other, “not as if I wasn’t there, but just, they weren’t hiding anything or looking for anything secretively. Everything they wanted to hear from me or say to each other was kind of out in the open.”

As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” When you give others clear and realistic expectations, their insecurity shrinks and your trustworthiness soars. Ditto when you don’t just tell them what you’re planning, day to day, but explain how it will help your organization or family.

Such declarations “foster credibility; by making a statement of intent on the record, you provide stakeholders with words to measure your actions against,” Covey and Douglas R. Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, wrote in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review.

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust2. Connect the dots.

To promote trusting relationships, it helps to think about which values you prize most and whether you’re living by them. Once you identify the principles you aim to follow, don’t just put them in a frame on the wall.

“When you explain to people what you’re doing, you always want to say, ‘I’m doing x because I have a value of xyz,’ ” says Bob Whipple, author of Leading with Trust Is Like Sailing Downwind. “You’re always tying actions back to what you believe.”

This will get you points for living by your principles, he says—even when you have to make unpopular decisions. Say your teenager has violated a family value of honesty; remind her of this as you take away her car keys. She’ll realize your values mean something, Whipple says, and so will any other kid who’s watching.

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust3. Lend an ear.

Make a habit of asking open-ended questions at home and at work: “How do you see the situation?” “What would make you happy?” Many trust mavens recommend versions of “reflective listening,” in which you focus on others’ words without interrupting or planning a response of your own, and repeat their thoughts back to them to show you have understood.

Share your own thinking only when you’re sure they’ve had their say. This will foster low fear and high trust, Whipple says—as long as you don’t answer defensively or dismissively, or otherwise punish them for being honest. “You don’t have to acquiesce. What you have to do is treat them like an adult.”

Trust is also confidence that another person has your interests at heart.

The same goes when others open up to you unexpectedly. Crowley, the workplace consultant, remembers how after their third date, a man walked her home. “I felt that pressure of, Am I supposed to invite this guy in? Will he be disappointed? But I really didn’t want to, and I told him the truth.” He thanked her for her honesty, she says, and asked her on a fourth date. “He didn’t punish me for it, which had been my fear. And that said to me that I could trust him with the truth and it would be OK.”

That man is now her husband.

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust4. Deliver the goods.

Nothing boosts others’ faith in you like doing what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it.

One way to ensure this happens is to “under-promise and over-deliver,” Crowley says. When a client asks how fast you can complete a given job, for instance, fight the urge to please her in the short run by naming an early deadline. A later one will leave room for possible obstacles. If they don’t crop up, you can finish ahead of schedule and pleasantly surprise the client. If they do, just meet the deadline. Your client won’t feel let down (as she would if you had blown an earlier deadline), and you’ll keep her confidence in the long run.

Related: 18 Ways to Gain Trust at Work

Is following through on commitments a chronic problem for you? Keeping promises to yourself might help, Covey says. When you make good on your vow to exercise three times a week, say, or your plan to learn Italian, it feeds your self-confidence. This should translate into confidence that you can honor commitments to others, and then improvement on keeping those commitments.

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust5. Fess up.

Though denying or spinning your mistakes may be tempting, it mostly makes others feel manipulated—and afraid to admit when they screw up. Instead, Crowley urges, show that you value learning from blunders and finding ways not to repeat them.

When I make a mistake—and I make a lot of mistakes—I tell my business partner and she processes it,” Crowley says. “She doesn’t say, ‘That’s the end of the relationship’ or ‘You’re an idiot’ or whatever. And vice versa. We can only do that because we have trust that if one of us makes a mistake, we will tell the other and then we will address it.”

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust6. Don’t be two-faced.

Would you trust someone who bad-mouthed you, shared your secrets, or took credit for your work? Of course not, which is why you should do the opposite.

“Speak about others as if they were present,” Covey writes in The Speed of Trust. The importance of this dawned on him years ago at a company where he and a dozen co-workers ate lunch together most days. “When they finished eating, a couple of people in the group would get up and leave, and the others would immediately start talking about them. It got to where I didn’t dare leave the table because I knew the moment I left, they’d start talking about me!”

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust7. Look beyond labels.

Lazy millennials. Selfish Gen-Xers. Clueless boomers.

Negative stereotypes of different groups abound, leading to disrespect and a decline in trust. Your best policy? Don’t buy into them, says Harry Reis, Ph.D., a social psychologist at the University of Rochester. “There are some millennial students at this university who are lazy as all get-out,” he says. “Others work their tails off. I think it’s about individuals.” Listen to others with an open mind, regardless of who they are, he says. “Interact with them as if you were talking to a person and not a representative of a category.”

That’s just what Ludwig and Owen-Boger do, says Vogelsang, who now works as their operations manager. “The way they treat me and speak to me is as a peer,” he says, even though Vogelsang is much younger. “As I see them interact with clients and other employees their age, there’s no difference in the way they treat me.” And that, he says, leaves him feeling respected.

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust8. Leap.

One of the biggest keys to earning others’ trust—and their loyal efforts—is simply to place more trust in them. “People realize when you’re not trusting them, because people are fairly good at picking up on those cues,” Reis says. “And if people think you don’t trust them, they won’t trust you. They’ll close off.”

They might even decide to meet your low expectations. That’s what happened with Ludwig and his colleagues under Crazy Man. When their suspicious boss wasn’t around, they seized every chance they could to waste his time and money—drawing cartoons of him, say.

It’s true you might get burned if you start trusting more. But you’ll definitely get burned if you don’t, and not just because you’ll lose the benefits of others’ reciprocal trust. In a 1970s study co-led by Holmes, the emeritus psychology professor, people played economic games with strangers. Players too wary and competitive to cooperate with each other “actually hurt themselves,” Holmes recalls. “People who worked cooperatively gained more money. That was the irony of it.”

8 Tried-and-True Steps to Building Trust

Your best bet is to take the proverbial leap of faith. Not a blind leap—“smart trust” means weighing your impulse to trust against other people’s credibility and the opportunity and risks at hand, Covey cautions—but not a stingy leap either. “We shouldn’t allow the 5 percent of people we can’t trust define for us the 95 percent of people we can trust.”

In other words, chances are good your leap will pay off. And it might pay big.

Consider William FitzPatrick, a philosophy professor in Rochester, New York (who is, full disclosure, married to the author of this story). One time in middle school, he says, he had trouble finishing an assignment after procrastinating. His parents talked with him about the importance of taking homework seriously. “After that, they didn’t try to police me or micromanage my study habits. They just trusted that I would do what I had to do to succeed, and I think I tried harder because of that.” He wanted to live up to their expectations and trust. “So in that sense, it did help the internal drive, the quest for excellence in academia, which led me to where I am now.”

Last but hardly least, consider Vogelsang again. In his first week working for Ludwig and Owen-Boger, he says, “they immediately gave me all the passwords to access their website and things.” They also gave him credit card info so he could make company purchases and told him he would be in charge of the office whenever they were traveling. “I feel like they’ve put such trust in me, gone out on a limb trusting me,” Vogelsang says. “Because of that, I have complete trust in them.”

Related: 9 Traits of Trustworthy People

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.