Trust is a vital workplace currency that underpins cohesive teamwork. When we put forward our trust while relying on colleagues, it signals our faith that they will come through for us. Over time, this reciprocity becomes an integral part of our strongest partnerships—and colleagues we can count on become quite valuable.
These trusting relationships make a real difference in our day-to-day work life: employees in high-trust environments feel more energetic and engaged, take fewer sick days, and stay at their workplaces longer than people working in organizations where trust is limited.
This makes it all the more difficult when someone doesn’t come through as expected. As a result, we may question the trust we placed in that person in the first place—and it can be disconcerting. In these instances, we can hope that our colleague will initiate steps to repair the damage. Otherwise, we need to find it in ourselves to move past the incident and proactively reestablish that trust or at least a collegial and productive working relationship.
This may be easier said than done, but here are some practical ways to get you moving in the right direction:
Evaluate your baseline
Trust doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing offer. It’s perfectly acceptable to trust certain people with certain things.
As humans, we’re naturally inclined to trust one another; it’s a fundamentally pro-social behavior. Nevertheless, people have different levels of social trust. We also each have different trigger points: what feels like a major infraction to one person might roll right off someone else’s shoulders. This may be influenced by your baseline of social trust or prior experience with similar, trust-shaking incidents.
When someone breaks your trust, consider assessing where you stand on the social trust spectrum as a way to contextualize your reaction. You can ask yourself questions like:
- Do I give people the benefit of the doubt from the get-go?
- Do I generally perceive my colleagues to be collaborative or self-interested?
- Do I hesitate to delegate and share work, or does this come naturally?
As you answer these questions, try to gauge how readily trust comes to you—and how durable it is. If it’s generally tenuous, it may be worth listing out elements of trust that are most important to you (e.g. consistency, honesty, ability) and use them to evaluate any given situation.
This isn’t to suggest that you should gloss over every incident that troubles you. Instead, evaluating your baseline simply allows you to look inquisitively at your reaction and use that to calibrate how you move forward.
Don’t misread intent
It’s easy to assess other people’s actions based our own tendencies. Take this example: your colleague forgets about an important assignment and misses the deadline. You, on the other hand, would never miss a deadline set by someone you respect. To you, it’s obvious that she doesn’t value you.
Before latching onto this conclusion, consider other plausible explanations that aren’t immediately apparent. Perhaps something else is amiss: this person may be experiencing a personal hardship or have too much work on her plate without feeling empowered to manage it. Whatever it might be, try giving that person the benefit of the doubt by assuming she didn’t intend to disappoint or offend you. Most of us can probably think of times we made a mistake without any mal intent whatsoever.
Put some boundaries around trust
Trust doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing offer. It’s perfectly acceptable to trust certain people with certain things. The person you go to for honest, constructive feedback might not be the same one you rely on to meet every deadline or to show up on time and well prepared for meetings.
By recognizing this, you can find value in most working relationships. If you’re in a managerial role, you can strategically delegate tasks that fit what you know each person will reliably deliver. If you’re not in a position to make that choice, consider introducing mechanisms that enhance workplace transparency and accountability.
Setting up for transparency
It’s difficult for colleagues to reliably meet one another’s expectations if those expectations are implied but not explicitly stated. By taking steps to create transparent working relationships, you can break trust-eroding cycles of misunderstanding.
Documenting even the most informal meetings and sending out clear action items are practices that do more than just help us look professional. They also create conditions for (re)building trust with our colleagues by inviting each person to confirm a common understanding of what was discussed and how to move forward.
Don’t rule out difficult conversations
It’s easy to shy away from difficult conversations at the office. Not everyone is comfortable expressing disappointment or prepared to face dialogue that falls short of reconciliation. But, if you can’t push past an issue on your own, then direct dialogue may be the best route to securing a healthy working relationship.
If you do choose dialogue, you can try structuring it along this progression:
- Identify the event that led to the meeting.
- Make it clear that your goal is to maintain a strong working relationship—not cast blame or rehash old issues.
- Acknowledge that your perspective is only one side, and invite that person’s input.
- Refocus away from what happened and more on how to move forward.
If the other person appears tense and defensive, make sure you’re using collaborative, positive language, such as “we” instead of “you” and give them time to express themselves.
Let go—to whatever extent you’re able
We have a choice: to let go or hold onto stress that may linger. Just know that letting go doesn’t require you to ignore or forget what happened. But you can do your best to work through it, trusting your own ability to be productive and professional, even when your relationships are, at times, imperfect.
It’s worth saying again: all this is easier said than done—but it’s worth a try.
Have you experienced broken trust in your professional relationships? If so, what have you done to work through it? Share your experiences in the comments below.