Work is Hell, Without Trust

Working in an environment where leaders are not trusted, and co-workers are more likely to sabotage than support each other, is not only hellish, it’s also a recipe for business disaster. As much as the ability to produce and innovate is impaired by disengaged or apathetic employees; it is demolished when they become fearful, cynical and bitter—and that’s what happens without trust.

Hell by Coppo Di MarcovaldoHell, a mosaic by Coppo Di Marcovaldo via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Building and maintaining trust in the workplace is one of the most critical functions of leadership. If you are a manager or leader, you should know that certain traits and approaches are considered trust builders (e.g. transparency and communication), while others are clear trust breakers (e.g. lying, inconsistency and poor follow through). Even so, unless you understand what’s going on beneath the surface, your best-intentioned efforts to build trust can backfire. When it comes to forging a connection with people, it’s seldom about you and it’s never simple: perceived injustices, bias, preconceptions, personal filters and basic misinterpretation, all impact trust.

A number of models have been created to help identify the underlying motivations that drive the trust equation between people. Let’s look at two.

The first model, which we’ll call ICPC for Intent, Commonality, Propriety and Capability, was originally developed to help establish trust in sales situations and has since been adopted and adapted for use in environments ranging from business management to the study of democracy. The second, Jacobs Model, was developed by Susanne Jacobs, an employee motivation specialist, specifically for the workplace.


This model states that the following four conditions have to be met in order to establish and maintain trust.  

Intent: Employees have to believe that their leaders and co-workers are operating with good intent and are not pursuing a detrimental, hidden agenda.

Trust builders, like transparency, honesty, purposeful communication and consistent follow-through, help demonstrate positive intent and create a high-trust culture.

Commonality: In order for people to trust one another, they must be able to relate to each other. One of the fastest ways to do this is to identify what they have in common. Fear is a barrier to trust—identifying how someone is “just like me” helps overcome that barrier, allowing trust to grow.

To help build trust, look for and draw attention to things you have in common: hobbies, life stage, music and art preferences, pets, educational pursuits, etc.

Propriety: Every individual, every family, and every workplace has an accepted code of conduct. Often, this code of conduct is not explicit, it’s just “the way we do things around here.” When you don’t abide by these rules (written or unwritten), it’s a breach of propriety that will undermine trust, sometimes permanently. This is especially important if you are the newcomer in an established environment.

Take the time to observe and listen to see what the norms are in a new situation. Strive to adapt to those norms to help establish trust. Just as you might study the culture and business etiquette of another country when accepting an international position, take the time to learn the rules of engagement in a new workplace before jumping in and possibly stomping on peoples sensibilities, killing your chances of establishing trust.

When it comes to new hires, share both the official and unofficial policies that make your team click. This will demonstrate good intent, while also helping them gel with co-workers more easily as they adapt to team norms. 

Capability (or Competence): People tend to mistrust someone they believe does not have the knowledge, skills and ability to do the job they are supposed to do, regardless of the positional relationship. Simply put, incompetence, or perceived incompetence, is a barrier to trust. This means that keeping people in roles they are not capable of effectively fulfilling makes it impossible to establish a culture of trust.

So, develop them, reassign them or let them go.

When these four conditions are met, that is, when you believe someone is operating with good intent, has something in common with you, behaves “properly” with respect to your internal code of conduct and is clearly competent in their role, trust comes easily. When one (or more) of these conditions is not met, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to establish trust.

Jacobs Model

The Jacobs Model, developed Susanne Jacobs, a specialist in employee motivation, takes a different approach in tying the development of trust to specific workplace realities. The foundations of this model are the following eight intrinsic drivers of trust.

1. Belong and connect: People need to feel connected to their team.

2. Significance and position: When people don’t feel valued they can feel threatened, which negatively impacts their performance.

3. Learn and challenge: Research shows that employees who feel challenged are more productive.

4. Security and certainty: If workers aren’t secure in their position, they can feel threatened leading to negative effects on performance and productivity levels.

5. Voice and recognition: People should be encouraged to express views and ideas in workplace so they feel their contributions are recognized and appreciated.

6. Fairness: Employees feeling like they aren’t being treated fairly can cause high levels of stress and low productivity.

7. Choice and autonomy: Giving workers a degree of control helps them to balance their work and home lives and improves performance.

8. Purpose: Workers with a clear sense of purpose are more likely to be engaged,

According to the Jacobs Model, when these eight drivers are satisfied, a positive outcome path results; leading to engagement, energy release, increased well-being and improved performance.

When the eight drivers are not met, a negative outcome path results; leading to withdrawal, distress, absenteeism and reduced performance.

Unlike ICPC, this model only works with respect to the work environment, and actually reads much like a model for fostering engagement rather than a model for establishing trust.

That opens up another topic for consideration: while there is clear overlap between the factors that generate trust and those that result in employee engagement, is it possible for employees to be engaged in a low-trust environment? We’ll save that discussion for another time.

For now, these two models offer frameworks you can use to build the kind of high-trust culture known to improve both employee engagement and overall performance.

A more detailed overview of the Jacobs Model is provided in this infographic created by Unum.

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