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Seven Reasons Your Coworkers Don’t Trust You

Think little breaches of trust are no big deal? Think again.

breaches of trustTrusting relationships at work lead to all good things, including greater productivity, performance, and morale.

Still, according to recent research, including the Civility in America 2011 survey, incivility is a growing problem at work. Two out of three employees report that their performance has declined due to workplace incivility. They also cite a “critical need” for civility training.

After studying issues of trust in the workplace for some 20 years, we are certain of one thing: Most employees think that a breach of trust must be severe or even scandalous to take a toll on their relationships with coworkers. To those people we say, “Think again.”

According to our research, little breaches of trust over time are a big deal—like death by a thousand paper cuts. So what are the not-so-little reasons your coworkers might not trust you? Here are seven common ones—and how to avoid them:

  1. You withhold trust in others. Trust is a two-way street. If you want people to trust you, you need to trust them. For starters, avoid micromanaging. Instead, give your coworkers the latitude to put their full talents to work. When you let go and trust in people’s competence, they feel confident and committed. They want to give their best. Conversely, when you hover over them, they recoil, feeling devalued and distrusted. Just as trust begets trust, distrust begets distrust.
  2. You fail to acknowledge effort. Odds are that you’re doing more with less these days. Even so, when a coworker goes above and beyond for you, how do you respond? Do you take a moment to personally recognize his effort? Or do you just say “e;Thanks”e; in a perfunctory email and move on to the next task? For people to trust you, they need to know that you care about them and notice their contributions. A little acknowledgment can go a long way.
  3. You miss deadlines. Life happens and you miss a deadline here and there. No big deal, right? Wrong. Every time you don’t deliver, you betray trust because your coworkers were depending on you. You’re also making the implicit assumption that everyone else is available to work around your schedule. Consequently, you reinforce people’s perception that you think you’re more important and that they can’t depend on you.
  4. You arrive late for meetings. When you consistently arrive late, your coworkers feel that you’re wasting their time. They also feel that you’d only be willing to do that if you think your time matters more than theirs. They end up feeling disrespected, insulted, and belittled.
  5. You don’t admit your mistakes. To err is human. When you mess up, what do you do? Do you check your ego at the door and acknowledge your mistake? Do you say to a coworker, “e;I made a bad call on that timeline”e; or “e;my finger-pointing wasn’t fair and I apologize”e;? In a New York Times interview, Siemens CEO Peter Löscher said, “e;I’m always telling people, ‘Look, I make a mistake every day, but hopefully I’m not making the same mistake twice.’”e; By admitting your own mistakes, you not only acknowledge your humanity but also allow your coworkers to acknowledge theirs. As a result, communication opens up, mutual trust is built, and people feel free to take smart, creative risks.
  6. You spin the truth. Do your coworkers know that they count on you to tell the truth or do they just assume you’ll tweak it? Whether the issue is giving difficult feedback or sharing bad news, you must resist sheltering people or serving your own agenda. Tell it like it is. Spin never passes the sniff test anyway; people see it for what it is and, sooner or later, lose trust.
  7. You behave badly. At a client site recently, we witnessed a tirade from a marketing executive—a leader notorious for his nasty temper. Later, his team members confided that they had come to expect such fist-pounding and profanity. No one felt safe from being singled out and screamed at in front of everyone. “e;We’ve all been humiliated by him,”e; said one VP. If you want your own coworkers to trust and respect you, be aware of your behavior. Instead of berating someone for missing a deadline, for instance, calmly ask how and why things got off track. Understand what that person needs from you in the future.

Finally, a common mistake many employees make is to assume that their position or tenure alone makes them worthy of others’ trust. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s only through behavior that people build trust.

About Dennis Reina

Dennis Reina, PhD, and Michelle Reina, PhD, are co-founders of the Reina Trust Building Institute, which specializes in promoting workplace trust. They are also co-authors of Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace and Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace


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