The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines trust as “an assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something; dependence on something future or contingent: hope.”

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This definition emphasizes the importance of trust in all relationships, whether in our family, community or workplace. We must be able to rely on someone’s character and abilities, and be confident they are speaking truthfully to us in all communications.

High levels of trust in a team implies that its members feel they can be completely transparent with their concerns, ideas, uncertainties and opinions, with full confidence that others will take them at face value. They have no fear of strongly worded criticism, mockery or insults that might be said in response and have confidence that any feedback is honest and constructive.

There are several indicators that a team possesses high levels of trust. High-trust team members acknowledge their weaknesses to one another and willingly apologize to one another when an error has been made, an inappropriate comment spoken or an oversight has occurred. They know that even if someone disagrees with a comment or an idea that is shared, no one will bring it up later as criticism. High-trust team members ask one another for input regarding their areas of responsibility. They share ideas, willingly ask for help when they are struggling to solve a problem and look for ways to help others.

Low-trust environments have clear indicators as well. In these situations, team members conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another. They hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback, and rarely offer assistance outside their own areas of responsibility. People in these environments tend to jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others and hold grudges against their co-workers. Asking for help is risky because they don’t know if others will respond in a genuinely helpful manner, or if they will be laughed at and insulted.


Mark Twain once said, “A chip on the shoulder is a sure sign that there is wood further up.” He recognized that those who hold grudges are stubborn individuals who lack the ability to change their opinions of people. Building trust with those who hold grudges is extremely difficult, inhibiting the ability of team members to engage in open conversation about ideas, suggestions and strategies.

Building and maintaining trust

Here are some of the more effective ways to create an environment where trust can flourish.

1. Give people the benefit of the doubt

The phrase “the benefit of the doubt” refers to a sincere effort to avoid negative assumptions about people’s actions, words and motives, and instead think the best of them. People tend to incorporate their personal biases about individuals, or types of individuals, whenever they make assumptions. Negative biases feed a sense that the other person lacks competence. When people choose to think the best of others, even when they make mistakes or say something inappropriate, it allows everyone the chance to correct the situation without creating strife or making someone feel inferior. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is a choice, and it should be encouraged as a part of our strategy to build a high-trust environment.

2. Admit mistakes

Some individuals struggle to admit their mistakes out of personal pride, while others are unwilling because they have experienced negative consequences any time a fault, weakness or mistake is exposed. Creating an environment where admitting mistakes is commonplace starts with leadership and management. When family members and employees see the owners and their boss openly admitting that they could have done something better, or an idea didn’t work, or they erred in their words or actions, it is easier for others to feel safe in admitting their own mistakes.

3. Let go of grudges

When someone holds a grudge for a long time, it evolves into bitterness. Bitterness harms the individual personally yet has no effect on the person they hold the bitterness toward. One definition of bitterness is “taking the poison yourself, hoping the other person dies.” Holding grudges against family members or co-workers disrupts the development of trust by creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity. When this occurs, leaders must choose to engage those who hold grudges and help them reveal the source of their attitudes toward others.

4. Eliminate gossip

Few things harm a workplace atmosphere more than gossip. Gossip is defined as “making negative comments about a person without that person being a part of the conversation.” When people in our business are accustomed to making negative comments about others, it reduces employee satisfaction, causes conflict and erodes trust. Gossipers tend to be negative people in general and create drama wherever they go. Take deliberate actions to teach people what gossip is, why it harms their workplace, and correct this behavior when it occurs.

5. Offer and accept apologies without hesitation

People who fail to apologize for obvious errors in judgment, poor performance or inappropriate comments cause the consequences of their behavior to grow in significance. Without a sincere apology, others are uncertain if the person even acknowledges that an error was made or that they fully comprehended the effect of their behaviors on others. The workplace atmosphere becomes more uncomfortable, and some will experience growing levels of anxiety. When a person does offer a genuine apology, it should be accepted without hesitation. Otherwise, apologies will be offered only rarely, and the negative effects of that hesitancy will continue to grow. There are occasions when we might accept an apology with some conditions, such as if a person apologizes over and over for the same behavior, indicating they have no desire to change.

6. Give credit where credit is due

Employees who work hard and have a strong desire for the company to succeed appreciate it when someone above them in the organization recognizes their contributions and loyalty. When people share ideas and suggestions, only to have someone else take the credit for them, those people will become much less engaged in their work and any loyalty they have will subside. One of the most common reasons for good people to leave a job they like is having a co-worker or manager take credit for their ideas or hard work. Recognizing employees’ contributions can encourage others to increase their efforts, resulting in a higher level of trust throughout the organization.