May 2020
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TD Magazine

Building Trust in Uncertain Times

Friday, May 1, 2020

Managers must create, build, and maintain trusting interpersonal relationships to improve business outcomes.

Because technology drives much of today's culture, it enables people to move at lightning speed to help them become more efficient as companies try to be the first and the best. While most managers trust that technology will transform operations to be more efficient, creating that same trust with team members is not quite as simple.


Human beings have an emtional need to connect. So, if you're a manager who desires to build a high-trust team culture, you must keep in mind that to lead well, both sides must first establish trust. Trust is the bridge that connects people and contributes to business success or failure. Thus, you should be diligent in displaying those trust-building behaviors in your interpersonal relationships—even in difficult or uncertain times when business outcomes are unpredictable.

Relationships first

You should first concentrate your efforts on building strong relationships rather than trying to build immediate trust with your team. Strong implies that you should know more about your direct reports than their job titles and work descriptions. When employees feel a connection to not just the job but also their manager, it makes trust easier, and they bring their best selves to work.

In cases where there are economic hardship conditions, layoffs, disciplinary issues, growth, or any change within an organization, having trust helps good leaders successfully navigate through those uncomfortable times. As the refrain goes, people don't leave companies, they leave people. Employees leave companies for various reasons, but when they leave, it is generally because the relationships aren't mutually beneficial, and they don't feel understood or appreciated by their manager.

Siegwart Lindenberg's relational signaling theory states that a person will look for signs in an individual's behavior to determine whether that person is committed to the mutually rewarding relationship. Especially in times of uncertainty, people want to be certain that they can still trust in their organization and their managers. They want to be assured that things are under control.

If management is not effectively communicating—or worse, is evasive—people will engage in unproductive behaviors. If managers haven't invested in relationship-building activities, there's little to no chance of influencing positive team behaviors. Building strong relationships starts with examining three categories:

  • communication—imparting or interchanging thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.
  • connection—the way you identify with and relate to people that increases your influence with them and their influence with you.
  • chemistry—the interaction between people working together.

Decide the value of changing behavior

When people want to lose weight, they must change their diet and exercise. If they want to save money, they must stop spending and establish a budget. The outcome of changing those behaviors? Better health and more money. The same philosophy applies to building trust.

Managers must evaluate the short- and long-term tangible and intangible costs of not changing behaviors. Trust is not something that happens automatically, nor is it something to think about; you create it only by taking action.

Trust is about making choices daily to engage in new behaviors. It must be earned over time but can be broken in an instant. If earning and building trust is not your priority, what's the impact of leading a team that doesn't work well together? How does productivity suffer when people aren't creative and innovative and bringing their best selves to work? What happens when they don't feel confident in themselves or each other? What if they're not willing to think outside the box or take risks? What if the company is changing its strategy and people are fearful of change and not convinced and motivated to try something new? Those are costs you must consider for not making trust a priority.

In business, trust is the foundation of relationships that lead to business results, and it cannot be ignored in today's economy. Organizations are making pivots, and managers must quickly lead their teams through these shifts. Your ability to recognize team dynamics is vital. While trust is universal, methods of building it vary from person to person—there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each person on your team has a unique personality and communication style and is motivated by different things.

Connecting and engaging with others for influence requires getting to know their wants, needs, and desires. What other areas might they be interested in contributing within the company? Are they holding back and not collaborating? Is it possible they have gifts and talents they have yet to explore in their current role? Are they reluctant to ask for help? Working in silos? Have they lost enthusiasm? Those employee behaviors are signals that trust may be lacking within your team and organization.

Without self-awareness, a person generally sees others the way she is and not as they are. Managers can make the mistake of focusing on others through their own self-perception, then make assumptions that their direct reports share similar values or visions. People are wired and driven by certain things. For some, its money; for others, it's achievement or relationships.

Establish trust by connecting with people where they are, not from your own experiences. Being curious and asking questions without being overly inquisitive is the key. Asking about what your employees care about most or what's important to them is the best way to allow them the space to open up about themselves over time. This takes effort but builds trust and reinforces the relationship.

Sales managers often instruct their teams to ask questions to discover clients' and customers' problems and pain points to provide solutions. In that same manner, all managers should intentionally be seeking and observing relational triggers from their teams to learn more about them. These relationship-building behaviors will help managers connect.

Types of workplace trust

To build a high-trust environment, managers must consider four types of trust.

Organizational trust. People spend a considerable amount of their lives at work and, thus, are looking for meaning and purpose in their work. Although an organization's mission and vision may be clearly stated as part of company policy, leaders must live out the mission and vision through their actions.

As an example, certain apps enable leaders to engage with their employees—via surveys, polls, and feedback—about what's going on with the company, both internally and externally. Such tools help bridge the connection gap, leading to employees feeling engaged and purposeful to the organization and that their jobs matter.

According to a 2018 Gallup study, 13 percent of employees are actively disengaged while 53 percent are not engaged. It's almost impossible to connect with people who aren't feeling purposeful and valued in their roles. Even in hard times, when people feel engaged and connected, good leaders make them feel they can be part of a solution and that their voices will be heard.

Trust in competence. You must demonstrate daily to your direct reports your capacity and ability to manage projects, make decisions, and get things done. You'll achieve that over time as your staff continually see your competence and confidence in accomplishing goals. Likewise, it's necessary that you allow others to see your weaknesses and not pretend that you always have all the answers. That subconsciously gives your direct reports permission to not have all the answers for themselves.

Demonstrate transparency and vulnerabilities to your team by being open and honest in your communications and sharing the why and how behind your decisions. That way, your direct reports will have a greater connection and understanding.

I once was asked at the last minute to conduct a presentation for a group of controllers from different California companies, because the person qualified to facilitate the training had backed out. I didn't know much about accounting but was instructed that I didn't need to know the topic in depth and that I only had to teach the learners how to interpret financial data into nonfinancial language that everyone throughout their organization could relate to.

It was obvious that I was incompetent in my knowledge and understanding of the topic, so there was zero trust from the audience. If your employees can sense your incompetence, they will not trust or respect your ability to lead.


Self-trust. Managers must lead themselves first. Having trust in yourself requires you to believe in your strengths and abilities as well as have an awareness that you're constantly evolving. When you have absolute clarity on your direction, goals, and expectations, it's easier for your team to follow.

If something doesn't go as planned, being comfortable with yourself and admitting you made a wrong decision or apologizing for what didn't go well demonstrates to your team that sometimes you lose and sometimes you learn. Doing so subconsciously builds trust in your employees' minds because of your willingness to be honest and vulnerable.

Some managers can be down on themselves, which can negatively impact their self-worth and self-esteem. Those feelings show up in behaviors and can affect the whole team.

Trust in character. Managers who have standards, values, and conviction to do the right thing—even when it's not popular or easy—show humility. Offering to help and giving others the room to grow and advance is a way to connect and gain influence among your employees. Likewise, showing interest in others' development demonstrates your belief and trust in their abilities and expertise.

Stellar managers will take full responsibility for their team's failures and give credit to their staff when they succeed. For example, a manager of a marketing department took responsibility for a mistake someone on her team made that cost the client thousands of dollars. The manager made things right with the client, made corrections in the processes, and informed the team member of what they could have done differently.

After that episode, the team members' trust that their manager would take care of them grew by leaps and bounds. Managers who show loyalty to their teams will get it back in return through productivity and trust.

Maintaining trust through uncertainty

When the path ahead is unclear, it causes chaos—and leaders must manage uncertainty while being conscious of the impact on the organization. There will always be some level of uncertainty, because change is constant. The key is to minimize disruptions in performance and maintain trust. Here are practical ways to do that.

Share insights. Although there will be details you can't communicate to your team, always share what you can and solicit their feedback to empower them to be part of the solution. Be honest and consistent in your communication, and get to know what's important to them.

Encourage action. Fear and doubt can paralyze your direct reports when they can't see ahead, which can drive bad behaviors. Help them to evaluate what they can and cannot control and to act on what they do know.

Acknowledge emotions. Uncertainty is uncomfortable for everyone, causing us to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Those feelings are real and should not be repressed, ignored, or denied. Model for your team how to stay motivated in times of uncertainty by openly acknowledging your own emotions.

Stay engaged and remain visible. Your direct reports are looking to you to guide them and lead them to success. Staying positive, visible, and engaged reassures them of your confidence and competence in giving them hope for the future.

About the Author

Tracy Y. Washington is a leadership engagement consultant, speaker, trainer, and coach. She is also creator and author of The Relationship Leadership Philosophy and leadership development programs, including Bottom Line Behavior and You Be More Confident Executive Coaching for Women. She is known for helping leaders and organizations engage and build strong team relationships and improve emotional intelligence competencies to navigate seamless transition to new and greater challenges for the future. She has worked with organizations to refine strategies to improve leadership and management effectiveness, employee engagement, interpersonal and communication styles, and customer relationship management skills. Working with diverse groups such as the American Dairy Association, the US Department of Labor, World Wildlife Fund, NASA, professional women’s associations, and small businesses, Washington is able to increase performance by clearing away real or perceived obstacles by identifying individual, group, and organizational limiting beliefs and eliminating toxic cultures.

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Fantastic article!
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Very helpful article. Will be an invaluable resource going forward. Tks!!
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Building trust is a must for a good working relationship. As a female manager, I would like to see more information (tools and tips) on how to build these relationship and make connections without the other person believing it's more than a work relationship.
Thanks, Tracy. Melody, from 30 years of research at Reina Trust Building®, we have found that business is conducted via relationships; and effective relationships are based on trust. In our book, Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, 3rd ed., you will find Three Dimensions of Trust and 16 behaviors that build it: Trust of Character- you do what you say you'll do: Trust of Communication- you communicate openly and honestly; Trust of Capability- you leverage your skills and the skills of others.
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