6 Things You Need To Build Trust and Psychological Safety At Work

At YMCA WorkWell, we talk about trust and community as the foundation for organizational culture. And the thing is, without trust you don’t have community either. It’s the fundamental must-have for an organization to be at its best and for employees to bring their full selves to work each day. When we work with people we trust, it boosts our well-being, resilience, productivity, creativity, and more.

Author and professor Paul J. Zak found that people at high-trust companies report:

  • 74% less work-related stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 29% more life satisfaction
  • 40% less burnout

So yes, we’d say trust is a pretty big thing. Wouldn’t you agree?

At its heart, trust is about confidence – the confidence you have that others’ actions will match their words. Meaning that you BELIEVE that they’ll do what they say they’re going to do. This is important because it signals to you that you matter to them as a person, and not only based on what you can do for them. It highlights that your skills and ideas are respected, and valued by those you put your trust in. And at work, that can include your coworkers, your supervisor, and the broader organization.

Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.” Paul J. Zak


The Neuroscience of Trust

Zak’s research explains what happens in our brains when we trust. When someone signals that they trust you, your brain releases the neurotransmitter oxytocin which acts to reduce the fear of trusting another. Oxytocin also increases a person’s empathy, which is important for collaborating with others. Furthermore, Zak found that high stress acts as a potent oxytocin inhibitor – meaning that when we’re stressed out, we find it hard to trust. This suggests that stressful workplaces can actually lead to a lack of trust. And as the research show us, a lack of trust leads to higher stress. The result? A vicious cycle some of us may, unfortunately, be all too familiar with.

Zak' s work identified eight management behaviours that stimulate oxytocin production and generate trust. Basically, it comes down to treating people like they are responsible adults and valuing them for their contributions. What does this look like? Giving them:

  • suitably challenging work
  • autonomy and flexibility in how it gets done
  • choice in pursuing passion projects and growth as individuals and professionals
  • and opportunities to build relationships.

To support this, leaders are encouraged to share information broadly and foster a culture of appreciation and recognition. In other words: We need to start by making our organizations safe for taking risks.


Build Trust Through Creating a Culture of Psychological Safety

Central to this concept of trust is psychological safety – defined by thought leader Dr. Amy Edmondson as the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” According to Edmondson, psychological safety is measured on four dimensions:

  1. Attitude towards risk and failure - the degree to which it is permissible to make mistakes;
  2. Open conversation - the degree to which difficult and sensitive topics can be discussed openly;
  3. Willingness to help - the degree to which people are willing to help each other; and,
  4. Inclusivity and diversity - the degree to which you can be yourself, and are welcomed for this.

So, how do you create psychological safety?

Make the spaces you inhabit, whether your office or your meetings, “no-secrets” spaces. These should be places where anything can be said. Author and corporate trainer Paul Axtell says that it’s critical to explicitly give permission to say or ask anything. It’s a dialogue, a two-way street. If you want your employees to feel able to say what they really think, you need to be willing to do the same as the leader. It’s facing hard questions together, working through productive conflict, and being open to all thoughts and ideas.

Of course, all of this assumes that you’re starting with a blank slate. There are two reasons that may not be true.

First, people bring their past experiences with them into new roles. In order to counteract this, you must make psychological safety explicit; it’s not enough to assume your employees will pick up on the safety signals and be willing to stick their necks out. Edmondson advises saying something like, “This is totally new for us, so I’m going to need everyone’s input. We’ll probably make mistakes and that’s ok; that’s how we learn.” Looking for contrary opinions or input is also helpful: “All right, that’s one side of the issue. Let’s hear the other side – who thinks differently?” You may even want to consider assigning someone to play devil’s advocate, and change up who it is; giving someone the role may help them to feel free to share dissenting opinions.

Second, as a leader, maybe you have violated trust in some way or your employees perceive that you have. If that’s the case, read on. If that’s not the case, these next principles work for building trust, too.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for this one and I’m not going to pretend it will be easy. Trust is built slowly and lost quickly. It is rebuilt VERY slowly. But I do believe that it’s possible. It has to start, though, with a genuine intention on your part to be trustworthy in future. Here’s what you need to commit to:

  1. Always tell the truth. Be open and transparent. Never, ever lie.
  2. Walk the talk and model the way.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Own your mistakes, apologize, make amends.
  4. Be a vault. Hold people’s confidences as sacred.
  5. Be empathetic and supportive. Care about people. Make them feel like they are valued and not just a cog in a wheel.
  6. Handle difficult situations and conversations with maturity and professionalism. Don’t “shoot the messenger”, make passive-aggressive comments when you don’t like what you hear, or hold a grudge. Bad news doesn’t get better when it doesn’t get shared, and the sooner it’s shared, the sooner you can start working to fix it.

What If You’re the Employee Who Has Lost Trust?

I get it: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” But, at some point, you need to be willing to try or it’s guaranteed that nothing will change.

Ask yourself: What did this person do to lose my trust? What do I think they could do to help rebuild it?

Start with an honest conversation. Try something small. See how they react – are they displaying a change in behaviour? If so, proceed from there, assuming they have positive intentions, and call them on it if you see them slipping back into former, untrustworthy behaviour.

If not, are you able to work in that environment, with that relationship? Is it sustainable? Can you work around it? An honest assessment of what you need for your own well-being is a good next step.

We need to be able to trust the people around us in order to put all of our energy into working towards organizational goals. We will also all make mistakes and it’s what we learn from those mistakes to help us move forward that matters. And given that we will all mess up sometimes, a little forgiveness goes a long way. What can you do today to both extend trust and be a little more trustworthy yourself?

Posted by

Kate Toth

Dr. Kate Toth, CHRL is YMCA WorkWell’s Director of Learning and Development. She loves to blog almost as much as she loves to develop and deliver training to help organizations enhance their culture and foster employee well-being. Her passion is to inspire others to think deeply and learn continuously. Kate has a PhD in Health Psychology and a MS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. With a weakness for red wine and chocolate, Kate’s active lifestyle is a non-negotiable in her quest for balance.

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