The Secret to Building Trust at Work

Trust is a person’s willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another, according to a widely-used definition of the concept.

Trust may seem a simple concept to many people, but it is actually highly complex and multi-dimensional: “The way that trust can be conceptualized is incredibly multifaceted,” observes Associate Professor Adam Waytz from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Photo opposite: Adam Waytz, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

For instance, there is multilevel trust (with an individual, group, firm, or institution); multidisciplinary trust; and trust as a cause, outcome, and influencer of attitude. Another business person may trust you, but not some of your colleagues – or vice versa. Trust can change over time – developing, building, declining, and even resurfacing in longstanding relationships. Trust takes different forms in different relationships, and the extent of trust may vary depending on the relationship’s history, and stage of development, as well as the context of the relationship.

Benefits of trusting another person

Why is trust so important to a person? Andy Eklund in his article “The benefits of trust” (2019) has noted many benefits resulting from a trusting relationship. A person who trusts you will:

  • Reach out to you for advice
  • Be inclined to accept and act on your recommendations
  • Bring you in on more advanced, complex and strategic issues
  • Reward you with more business (and repeat business)
  • Share more information with you, which in turns, helps you to improve the quality of service you provide others
  • Pay your bills on time and without question
  • Introduce you to colleagues, team members, business acquaintances, their friends, and other key people to build your network
  • Lower the level of stress in your interactions, if not minimize future potential conflicts
  • Give you the benefit of the doubt
  • Forgive you when you make a mistake
  • Protect you when you need it … even from their own organization
  • Warn you of dangers that you might avoid
  • Involve you early on when issues begin to form, rather than later in the process
  • Trust your instincts and judgments, including those about other people
  • And perhaps most of all, respect you … if not, you will feel more confident about yourself and your work.

Four key components of trust at work

The four key components of trust are benevolence, integrity, competence and predictability. These are based on extensive research by McKnight and Chervany: (“What is Trust? A Conceptual Analysis and An Interdisciplinary Model” and “Trust and Distrust Definitions: One Bite at a Time“.) These four components cover 92% of trust definitions found in 65 academic sources, according to McKnight & Chervany. It you feel a person has lost trust in you, reflect on each of these four variables, and develop a personal action plan comprising several steps addressing each component. This should enable you to recover lost ground. Regaining trust is not a quick fix, so you need to patient in your efforts to restore the trust of another person. Suggestions for possible actions you could take, both to establish and restore a person’s trust, could include:

1. Benevolence – Are you perceived as a kind and caring person?

Actions you can take as a communicator to create warmth (benevolence) and therefore trust. People care most about your warmth (ahead of competence) when they first meet you. To show benevolence, you can:

  1. Provide useful information to the person who doesn’t trust you.
  2. Ask them for their perspectives and advice. In doing so, make it clear you value their opinions and listen actively to them.
  3. Offer them some helpful communication advice (tactfully, because they don’t yet trust you).
  4. Work to be perceived as a recognized expert within your industry and organization.Regularly attend industry conferences and take a leadership role in a relevant professional organization such as the PRSA or IABC, who have branches at local level, which would enable this.
  5. Write articles for LinkedIn and other business channels or your organization’s newsletter about the professional subject in which you are most interested.
  6. Add the other person to briefings about communication aspects of issues, crises and risk management.
  7. Introduce them to useful contacts you have.
  8. Offer to help them with communication ideas and actions for a project they are working on.
  9. Give recognition to them, within hearing distance, to another person or group for some productive work that person has been doing.
  10. Give them priority in communication activities such as developing subsidiary messages to corporate messages.

2. Integrity – Are you ethical in your attitude and behavior?

This means being honest, walking the talk, and fulfilling promises. You can’t trust someone unless you believe they have integrity. When someone is assessing your integrity, they’re wondering, “Do you have values I align with? Are you a good person?” Here are some suggestions that you can implement to clearly demonstrate the importance of good ethics to you:

  1. You arrange for your team to regularly discuss ethical issues relevant to their jobs. Conversations about ethics and trust and the consequences of  business decisions are a part of a daily routine
  2. You ensure all your messaging is accurate and truthful. Telling the whole truth in every situation may not be feasible for reasons of space or time, so therefore you observe a policy of substantial completeness, which is the point at which a reasonable person’s requirements for information are satisfied. You don’t lie by omission – knowingly failing to release information that should be included in statements to stakeholders.
  3. You expect truthfulness from others and refuse to accept misinformation in communication from others, ie you expect honesty and integrity from your employees, partners, management and other stakeholders.
  4. In your communication work, you ensure corporate values are articulated and integrated into the business processes of your department and your organization as a whole.
  5. As a guide for your communication practice, you can access the Code of Ethics of the Public Relations Society of America and use it as a guide. Include aspects of ethical practice regularly in your team meetings and staff discussions.
  6. As a professional communicator, you can access the “Ethics and PR” section of the Institute for Public Relations website for articles about ethics.

In addition, when making decisions you can ask yourself (and others) 5 questions that encourage good ethical practice in communication roles:

  • Is this likely to cause harm?
  • Is there a missed opportunity to do good?
  • Could anyone be misled in any way?
  • Will anyone’s privacy be invaded?
  • Is it unfair to anyone?
  • Does it feel wrong?

3. Competence – Do you have the ability, attitude, skills and knowledge to do what needs to be done?

We decide whether to trust another person almost immediately, based largely on perceptions of their warmth and competence. Our social judgment based on these two dimensions accounts for more than 90% of the variance in the positive or negative impressions formed of other people, according to Harvard researchers Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger:

“The best way to gain influence [and trust] is to combine warmth and strength. These traits can actually be mutually reinforcing: Feeling a sense of personal strength helps us to be more open, less threatened, and less threatening in stressful situations. When we feel confident and calm, we project authenticity and warmth.”

Through nonverbal behaviors that subtly communicate warmth and competence information, people can manage the impressions they make on colleagues, potential employers, and possible investors. The decisive factor is their warmth. The Harvard researchers detail how warmth can mean positive body language, affirming words, generous actions, and even a smile. Competence can be projected similarly through body language (such as standing up straight), your past track record, and the actions you take going forward.

4. Predictability – Do you behave in a way that others can consistently predict?

Trust is created in people when there is a sense of predictability, dependability or familiarity that is positive. Your track record – your performance – will enable others to believe you have achieved the results for which you were trusted to follow through. When colleagues intuitively ask themselves about you, “What has this person done that proves I can trust her?” they would be thinking about the results you have achieved. According to Professor Eli Finkel from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University:

“People like to feel you are predictable so they can rely on you to behave and do what is expected. When we first get to know coworkers, we are really trying to figure out, ‘Can I predict the way they’re going to behave and respond in given situations?’ Over time, we start to conclude, ‘What sort of person is this? Is this somebody that I can trust?’ And then finally, if you have a long-term relationship at the workplace with someone, you can develop this sense of faith that the person is out there today and in the future and has your best interest at heart.”


Complete trust is rare. Instead, people partly trust and partly distrust simultaneously. In business relationships, two examples are:

“I trust your experience in completing this type of project, but I distrust your ability to meet deadlines,”

“Employees could feel confident about the organization’s capabilities – trust, while at the same time they are skeptical about whether the organization keeps employees’ interests in mind when making decisions – distrust,” as commented by Hongmei Shen in 2016.

Distrust is not just low trust or simply a lack of trust. It is a multi-dimensional concept encompassing rational as well as instinctive distrust. Elements of rational distrust include wariness, skepticism, self-interest, lack of confidence, concern about harm, suspicion, confrontation, guile, hostility, lack of caring and disrespect from the other person.

While trust is clearly considered to be a part of relationship management, distrust is not usually taken into account, or it may be implicit. You may even include it as a risk management factor in precautions in place for a project.

Mary Welch suggests trust and distrust can be viewed as co-existing in a fluid zone of approval. In her article “Rethinking relationship management” (Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2006), Welch gives the example of a client who places their trust in a service provider, but at the same time takes care to monitor the service provider’s performance. Aspects of the relationship may increase or decrease the levels of trust and distrust. (Honesty results in increased trust, failure to meet agreed deadlines results in increased distrust). Welch’s suggestion of a “zone of approval model of organizational-stakeholder trust and distrust” shows how aspects of the relationship may vary over time, as below:

Above diagram from Mary Welch article.

The idea of a zone of approval encompassing trust and distrust offers a fresh way to think about relationships and consequently, the possibility of managing them more effectively because both factors are taken into account, according to Welch.

Trust levels, violations and restoration

How does our trust of another person respond to changes in levels of trust, trust violations and restoration of trust? Professor John Hershey from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania set up a money game that allowed his team to measure changes in personal trust over time.

The experiment revealed that “trust harmed by untrustworthy behavior can be effectively restored when individuals observe a consistent series of trustworthy actions.” Also, making a promise to change behavior can help speed up the trust recovery process.

But when a person’s trust is violated by deception, their trust is difficult to restore, such as when a person forgets to return something and then lies about it, or a work colleague doesn’t meet a deadline and then lies about the reason for missing it.

Trust is essential in daily business, whether we are relying on a colleague to finish their part of a project, a worker trusting their boss to compensate them for working extra time, or a customer trusting the company to deliver a product on time. Yet trust violations are common, ranging from serious misdeeds like fraud to lesser breaches such as taking credit for someone else’s work. For example:

  • A worker may fail to give credit to a colleague on successful completion of a project, leaving the unrecognized person feeling slighted and used.
  • A boss may say, “Trust me. This project will be good for your career,” when the boss is merely interested in getting some temporary assistance.
  • Union representatives and company managers may be less than forthcoming with each other while trying to agree on a labor contract.
  • Massive swindles like the Wells Fargo bank scandal – creating millions of fraudulent savings and checking accounts so staff would be paid bonuses (still being resolved), and US investment adviser and financier Bernie Madoff, whose client accounts were missing US$65 billion, and whose Ponzi scheme deception most likely took place from the 1970s until he confessed in 2008.


The Wharton experiment found that trust can recover from a period of untrustworthy actions, but deception causes significant and enduring harm.

Even when the deception was followed by trustworthy actions, trust recovered more slowly and less completely than when participants were not deceived.

The researchers found different results for a promise and apology. A promise to change behavior helped to restore trust, especially initially, but a promise was not as effective when there had been deception. Although cooperation might be relatively easily restored, complete trust is not likely to be re-established.

Several studies have found that a simple apology can be very effective (References as below for: Bottom et al., 2002; Kim et al., 2004; Tomlinson et al., 2004). Researchers have identified five key components of an apology:

  • A statement of apology (I’m sorry)
  • Remorse (I feel badly)
  • An offer of restitution
  • Self criticism (I was an idiot), and
  • A request for forgiveness.

The takeaway: If you are working to rebuild trust, be sure that people are aware of your trustworthy attitude and behavior. When it comes to trust, actions matter, but they don’t always speak louder than words tactfully spoken that reflect your responsible attitude.

Off to a bad start

Trust, a central element in many interpersonal interactions, can begin to flourish right from the start of a relationship. It is “the single most important element of a good working relationship,” according to various scholars. Therefore, when someone causes distrust from the start of a personal or business relationship (“getting off on the wrong foot”), this invariably causes severe long-term problems in the relationship. Although later breaches in a relationship seem to limit cooperation for only a short time, they still plant a seed of distrust that surfaces later.

In starting a new relationship, such as when employees meet a new boss, people are particularly sensitive about how they will be treated. They want sufficient dignity and respect – they want to be trusted – and so if you are a new boss, you need to make your staff feel wanted and valuable.


Bottom, W. P., Gibson, K., Daniels, S., & Murnighan, J. K. (2002). When talk is not cheap:
substantive penance and expressions of intent in the reestablishment of cooperation.
Organizational Science, Vol. 13, pp. 497-513.

Kim, P.H., Ferrin, D.L., Cooper, C.D., & Dirks, K.T. (2004). Removing the shadow of suspicion:
The effects of apology vs. denial for repairing ability- vs. integrity-based trust violations.
Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 89, pp. 104-118.

Tomlinson, E. C., Dineen, B. R., & Lewicki, R. J. (2004). The road to reconciliation:
Antecedents of victim willingness to reconcile following a broken promise.                                                                                                                                                       Journal of Management, Vol. 30, pp. 165-187.

This article updated in 2020.


Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

Leave a comment

Please read and respect our Comments Policy before engaging.


Further Reading


No products in the cart

Send this to a friend