Six Ways to Build Trust and Three Ways to Break It


Esther Derby has been thinking about trust in the workplace a lot lately, and the absence of trust, too. When she asks people what it's like to work in a group where people trust their managers, they tell her information flows freely, conflict is productive, and that they can tell their managers what they think without fear of retribution. On the other hand, when trust is absent, people hide information, look out for themselves, don't bring up new ideas, and withhold effort.

Some managers seem to know instinctively how to create trust. But I doubt that managers in low trust groups set out to destroy trust. I suspect that they have learned some bad habits and have some assumptions that subtly (or not so subtly) communicate lack of trust.

So, what can you as a manager do to create an environment of trust? The first way to build trust with the people who report to you is to demonstrate that you trust them.

Demonstrating trust includes both the absence and presence of behavior. Here are six actions you can take to build trust: 

  1. Be transparent. Share relevant information with the group. Let them know what you know about organizational priorities, decisions, and goals. When you make decisions that affect the group, tell them what your thought process was and the factors you considered. If you ask for the group's input into a decision, and tell them how you will use the information they provide and how that input affected your final decision.
  2. Let people know where you stand. Tell your group what a successful performance looks like from your perspective. Also, tell the team how your boss will judge your success. That provides context for your actions and decisions and will help people see how they can help you.
  3. Be consistent. You don't have to treat everyone the same, because people are not the same. But, you do need to treat people equitably and consistently. If your favorite protégé breaks the build and then leaves for a two-hour lunch, treat him the same way you would if he were your least favorite person on the team and did the same thing. (Or better yet, give direct and respectful feedback that doesn't let people off the hook whether it's your favorite or not.)
  4. Consult with the team before you make commitments on behalf of the team. When your boss asks you to deliver a project by a certain date, don't automatically agree. Learn as much as you can about the project, and then tell your boss that you need to discuss the new project with your team before you give a definite answer. Promise only what you can—that you will look at the impacts and alternatives with the people who will actually do the work-and report the best options available to your boss.
  5. Seek feedback from the group. Somehow, we've come to believe that feedback only flows downhill. Vice presidents give feedback to directors, directors give feedback to managers, and so on, all the way down the hierarchy. But managers need feedback from their groups, as well, to understand how they are performing their jobs. I don't mean once-a-year, sanitized, 360-degree, review-type feedback. I mean direct information from the people who rely on you to create an atmosphere where they can be successful. (For more guidance on how to gather feedback from your group, see A Manager's Guide to Getting Feedback.) Seeking feedback shows that you value the group's perceptions and want to provide them what they need to do their jobs.
  6. Keep your commitments. Just as you expect team members to do what they say they'll do, they expect you to follow through when you say you'll take action. Of course, sometimes it's not possible or feasible to follow through, and reasonable people don't expect perfection. If you find you cannot follow through on a commitment, tell the team and renegotiate the commitment if appropriate.<--pagebreak-->

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at and on her weblog at Her email is

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