Trust is one of the most important indicators of organizational success. It is also one of the least-developed faculties in the business world. Distrust abounds in many organizations. An executive lacks faith in their manager’s ability to take on a bigger responsibility; workers on the shop floor don’t believe in the strategy the higher-ups are pursuing. Is this because people are, in general, selfish and paranoid creatures? I don’t think so. The problem lies in the fact that building trust is hard work. It feels much easier to resort to gossip, defeatism, or cliquishness, avoiding difficult conversations that would create significant breakthroughs. But we know how often the “easy route” is a devil in disguise.

In order to create healthy work cultures and productive organizations, leaders must invest in trust-building activities. Great ideas and meaningful conversations are born, more often than not, in trusting environments. When people trust each other, they are able to say what they think. They can debate, critique, and even argue with their coworkers without fear of lasting damage to the relationship. People who trust each other believe that they are all on the same team, and that difficult conversations are meant to lift everyone up, not bring anyone down.

Trust is built through intentional effort–and a bit of courage. Here are five elements to consider.

T: Time. As a leader, developing a trusting culture begins with making connections with your colleagues, and facilitating connections among them. This can be done mano-e-mano or in group settings, but in any case, it involves a significant investment of time. Leaders who are focused exclusively on project deadlines fail to develop lasting connections with the people who actually do the work. The people who work with you should believe you care about them, and sustained, meaningful engagement is the best proof.

R: Relationships. At Emergent, we like to say we’re in the relationship business. But we believe that every business with two or more employees is also, by necessity, concerned with relationships. Even if your colleagues all love their jobs, they are people first. Leaders put people over product. They recognize the value of the whole person, not just the person’s role during work hours. They are present to the ups and downs of their colleagues’ lives. Cultivate relationships first. Productivity will inevitably follow.

U: Understand. Understanding begins with deep listening. Pay attention to the things that motivate your colleagues, and the things that challenge them. Remember that old lesson from Atticus Finch, the wise lawyer of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Listen, consider, and understand.

S: Support. One of the most profound expressions of trust is belief in another person. Most of us can remember an instance when someone else’s faith in us gave us the courage to actualize our potential. Sometimes, genuine belief is all a person needs. But leaders can also provide support by asking curious questions, giving advice, demonstrating a skill, or just listening. And support can move up the ladder, too; many executives would be grateful for a friendly ear, even if they rarely show it.

T: Truth. Honesty is the most obvious and most essential ingredient of a trusting culture. There are always issues we’d rather not address, conversations we’d rather avoid. But burying the truth doesn’t do anybody good. The most effective organizations are honest about performance, needs, doubts, and challenges. The more truthful a work culture is, the more breakthroughs the organization achieves.

I urge you to reflect on the five components of trust and ask yourself what you could do to strengthen trust in your relationships. As an experiment, commit to having open and honest conversations with two individuals from your personal or professional life. Adopt the attitude of care-frontation, a word I’ve borrowed from my friend Mike Hopkins; allow yourself to be guided by honesty and compassion. Maybe you’ll address a longstanding concern, or open up about a challenge you’ve been experiencing. Take the time to listen. Seek to understand their perspective. Most importantly, tell the truth. It might not be easy, but investing in trust pays enormous dividends.

This blog is based on an episode of the Get Emergent podcast, where I was joined by Cindy Masingill. For further discussion, listen to the episode here. If you are interested in developing trust in your relationships, send me an email at I’d be happy to help.

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