How to Build a Culture of Trust

'Building trust' is in danger of becoming an empty platitude, which undermines real appreciation for trust in working relationships.

Employee Trust

Many organizations cite trust as a core value, but fewer actually manage to build a genuine culture of trust. As a result, ‘building trust’ is in danger of becoming an empty platitude, which undermines real appreciation for trust in working relationships. While the aspiration to build trust may not be remarkable, successfully achieving a culture of trust is invaluable. Trust is the glue that holds a successful company together.

Why Trust Matters

The opposite of trust is fear. Employees lack trust because they’re afraid of something. So what are employees afraid of? Normally, they’re concerned that their performance isn’t good enough, that they’re not as capable as everyone thinks, and that this will somehow be exposed to their colleagues and superiors. Ironically, this fear worsens their performance because they don’t ask for help when they need it or learn the things they pretend to know already, and they compete more readily than they collaborate. Fear inhibits trust.

The warped logic that produces a culture of fear – with practices aimed at maximizing productivity, such as tracking time at the desk or monitoring employees who work from home – is fundamentally flawed. People can’t flourish in such an environment. Removing that fear and building a culture of trust is rewarding. It cultivates a happier, healthier, more productive organization. Everyone benefits.

Trust can’t be instilled in a day, but leaders can create the conditions in which a culture of trust will thrive. Here are three ways to foster trust throughout your organization: trust between peers, trust between managers and their teams, and trust across all departments.

1. Model Trust To Your Employees

If you want your employees to trust each other, you must model that trust. People want to trust and be part of a tribe, so show them it’s safe to do so in your organization. Default to trust, even though that exposes you to risk. It’s better to be burned occasionally than to forgo a genuine culture of trust.

When employees ask for you to make a decision about their work, ask what they think. Often they’ll have spent more time on that project and know more than you – in which case, it makes more sense to trust their judgment than to pretend you know better or to micro-manage every project. Being a leader doesn’t mean having all the answers.

Talking about trust keeps the idea fresh in people’s minds. Tell employees that you trust them to do their jobs diligently and to make decisions in the best interests of the business. Emphasize the value of customers’ trust in your organization, and explain how to win and retain that trust.

2. Foster Genuine Transparency

Trust breeds transparency. People aren’t afraid to share with those they trust. And transparency reinforces trust because it gives people the chance to prove they’re trustworthy.

At my company, Gearset, we’re completely transparent about our strategy, including both our strengths and weaknesses. Our customers’ information is completely safeguarded, but when it comes to internal documents, meeting minutes, discussions, and so on, we operate on a need-to-conceal basis rather than a need-to-know basis. Empowering people with more information than the bare minimum they need for their role demonstrates that they are trusted. It shows we have confidence in them not only to protect that information but also to make insightful observations and contributions based on what they observe. If you trust the team you lead, they will rise to the occasion.

We’re also committed to rigorous and honest feedback, and this applies to everyone – from interns right through to the CEO. Normalizing constant feedback and peer review means that teammates quickly get past the nervousness of sharing their work for feedback, or the embarrassment of pointing out problems in someone else’s work. Everyone’s work benefits from a second pair of eyes, and a culture of feedback helps colleagues learn to be more open with each other – there’s less defensiveness when flaws or possible improvements are highlighted. As a bonus, more collaboration also leads to greater productivity.

3. Make Trust Part Of Recruitment

Trust is fragile. At a high-growth company or in a quickly expanding team, it’s all too easy to lose the culture of trust that’s being carefully cultivated. It’s vital, therefore, that trust, transparency and feedback are all themes that are discussed throughout your interview and onboarding process. Showing openness and trust during recruitment will encourage candidates to be open and honest in return, making it easy to identify if they’re right for the role.

Ask candidates probing questions about how they’ve worked with other teams and managers in the past. Can they cite convincing examples of times when they’ve learned from feedback? Can they reflect honestly on mistakes they’ve made or do they try to shift the blame entirely onto others? A good candidate may be coming from an unhelpful working environment; if that seems to be the case, try to discern whether they have the aptitude for a culture of trust. Be inventive with your line of questioning and press for specific details.

We’ve found the time spent on our own thorough interview process to be a worthwhile investment, and have assembled a fantastic team. For our new starters, there’s a lot to learn, but our way of working and our culture are part of their onboarding. Mostly that’s by osmosis; they soon experience the trust, transparency and feedback for themselves. But we explicitly point out those things to emphasize their importance to us as a company.

Testing for Trust

How do you know if you’re successfully building a culture of trust? One of the tools I’ve found useful is a weekly survey that my employees can use to give anonymous feedback on our shared company culture. There are other processes, too, that help me keep my finger on the pulse and make sure we protect the things that work and improve on things that aren’t working. If you’re not doing so already, I recommend that you think about how you can honestly assess the culture in your team or organization. And, even more importantly, create the conditions that will let trust thrive.


Kevin Boyle is CEO and Co-Founder of Gearset, a leading DevOps solution for Salesforce. Gearset scales from teams first dipping their toes into DevOps right through to teams of hundreds of people making the most of parallel development and continuous delivery.