ATD Blog

How to Build Trust in Social Learning Environments

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Social learning is not just sharing information via social media. Social learning is a collaborative process where people learn with and through others to fulfill predetermined learning goals. This technology-enabled practice can take many forms, such as modern mentoring, coaching, peer collaboration, and learning communities.

As remote work continues to be a popular and practical choice for organizations and employees alike, it can be difficult to make personal and professional connections and feel like part of the same team. In the absence of physically working with some or all of your colleagues, building trusting relationships with one another can be seemingly even harder.

This same issue can arise in social learning environments. People may ask: Can I really trust these individuals whom I’ve never met, but who are now giving me advice or asking for my help through social learning?

The answer is yes, you can. If a person is responsive, collaborative, and supportive in his normal work world, this will easily come through in his virtual reputation as he engages in social learning. You will be able to assess his character despite the virtual nature of social learning.

To build trust in social learning, consider these three guidelines that you can put into practice today for encouraging camaraderie and underscoring commitment to your learning network.


Give willingly and generously. You must have the desire and willingness to generously share knowledge and insights with your colleagues if you expect trust to form. You can do this by being highly collaborative, by willingly sharing your know-how, by generously giving time and energy, and by referencing the contributions of those you consult for information. People who exhibit generosity with their knowledge and time are often seen as approachable, engaging, authentic, personable, and thoughtful. They take an interest in envisioning and encouraging others to become their best selves, and they seek opportunities to highlight the positive attributes and unique contributions of people within the context of social learning. They are genuine, caring members of the networked learning community who strive to give back to others around them.

Act humbly and courageously. One of the keys to building trust in a social learning situation includes embodying the characteristics of humility and courageousness. A large part of collaboration and knowledge sharing involves revealing personal understandings about what may have gone wrong in the past or what lessons have been learned through previous experiences. Not everyone is willing to communicate these types of insights for fear of being seen as incompetent, unknowledgeable, or foolish. However, when you are courageous enough to let down your guard and expose your vulnerabilities to others, deep and profound learning can occur. As a result, trust is built among you and the other participants, and commitment grows throughout the group. This type of authentic knowledge sharing helps build a culture where people willingly share relevant, emerging information that affects real job demands.


Engage others honestly and openly. Honesty is vital to building trust because trust is based on confidence in other people’s character. Trustworthy social learning participants are frequently described as people who walk the talk, follow through on commitments, and are consistent in their actions. In a word, these people act with integrity. You have to understand your own personality and work preferences for productive collaboration to occur. It also helps if you realize when you are distracted or overwhelmed by outside issues, since this could detract from your attentiveness to your colleagues. Being mentally present and actively listening will help you to gain better understanding of the issue or situation under discussion. In turn, this can create more effective learning networks and build profound trust.

The workplace is not a utopia, but by layering truth and honesty into the foundation of social learning networks, people can build a virtual community where they establish trust among colleagues and create their own safe haven for learning and personal development. Community exists when people come together to share a common purpose or interest, supporting and collaborating with one another to achieve something meaningful. Building trust and community in this environment can help knowledge flow unimpeded throughout the organization and make for a richer experience for all involved. 

About the Author

Randy Emelo is the founder and chief strategist at River, a Denver-based company that builds mentoring and social learning software. He has more than 25 years of experience in management, training, and leadership development, and is a prolific author, speaker, and thought leader on topics related to collaboration, mentoring, social learning, and talent development.

Throughout the years, Randy has embarked on a military career with the U.S. Navy, led leadership development work with nonprofits in the Americas, and helped Fortune 500 companies build mentoring and learning cultures in their organizations.

Randy holds a master’s degree in organizational design and effectiveness from Fielding Graduate University (formerly The Fielding Institute) in Santa Barbara, CA. Randy’s book, Modern Mentoring, is available now from ATD Press. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @remelo.

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