Jacob Kaplan-Moss

How to Build Trust

Most managers know intuitively that trust is the foundation of good management. Everything about the job gets easier when you have a team that trusts you. Many managers can sort of stumble into a trusting team; as we’ll see below, the tactics required to built trust overlap substantially with “do your job well”. Thus, you can get quite deep into a management career without needing to consciously work on building trust. But sooner or later, almost every manager ends up with someone – or multiple someones – on their team who don’t trust them. And suddenly, it’s a huge struggle. I remember the first time I was in a situation like this: I made a management mistake, burned someone’s trust, and had no idea how to get it back.

Management books often cover the importance of trust, but abstractly. There’s precious little writing about the nuts and bolts, the day-to-day tasks of trust-building. That’s the gap I’d like to try to fill with this article.

The tautological truth of building trust

The way to build trust is to be trustworthy. This sounds like a tautology, and I guess it is, but the point is: there’s no “trick” to building trust. You can’t build trust through artificial “trust building” exercises, nor can you say “trust me” and expect it to work. The only way you can build trust is by demonstrating, over time, that you’re deserving of trust.

But we shouldn’t just leave it there. One of the reasons there’s so little specific writing about trust-building is that it’s so tempting to leave the discussion at this basic level: “build trust by being trustworthy.” That’s a circular definition, and I’d like to try to go deeper. What does “being trustworthy” mean, concretely?

The foundation: do your fucking job

If you, like me, are a regular reader of Allison Green’s Ask a Manager, you’ll notice a running theme: much of the time, the problem isn’t the problem the writer is asking about, the problem is that their boss sucks.

In many of these cases, “your boss sucks” really means is something like “they are failing at the job of management”. We see managers refusing to deal with improper workplace behavior, avoiding performance conversations with people whose poor work is impacting the rest of the team, enforcing policies without nuance, etc. Needless to say, these managers don’t win their team’s trust!

So, building trust has to start with being good (or at least competent) at the basics of management. This means living some basic values – honesty, integrity, kindness, etc., – and it means doing the work: one-on-ones, feedback, coaching, performance management, project/process management, and so forth.

Importantly: you need to be able to do these basic activities even in a low-trust environment. For example, you can’t wait to give feedback until you’ve won the trust of your team; you have to learn give good feedback (i.e. fair, actionable, positive as well as negative, etc.) even when you don’t have a ton of trust yet. And, you’ll find that when you do, your team seeing you do your job will help build that trust.

The key observation here is that the techniques that help build trust are also good management. They aren’t things you do just so you can build trust and then relax; they’re activities and behaviors that you do regardless of the level of trust on your team.

This is hard, it takes time, and success isn’t guaranteed

Now, there will be situations where this just doesn’t work. There is a point at which trust is so low that you really can’t do your job. I’ve seen situations where even positive feedback is met with hostility and pushback, or where every conversation about tasks and priorities turns into an argument. If this is just one person it may be that they’re not someone you can manage effectively and you might need to take steps to move them to a different team or even fire them. But if this is a pattern – if there are multiple people on your team who distrust you to this level – this is probably a “you” problem. It should prompt some really deep soul searching about whether this is the right job for you. It probably isn’t.

You’ll also find situations where people have had such bad managers in the past that they carry a sort of workplace trauma. There are, unfortunately, a ton of bad managers out there. If someone’s only experienced bad management, they can grow to believe that all managers will be bad, and will be terrifically hard to reach. You can usually reach these people to a point: they’ll take feedback (but won’t push back if they disagree), tell you what you need to know about their work (but minimally, and no more), take direction (cautiously), and can be good members of your team. But they may never fully trust you, and you need to understand it’s not personal.

It’s important to go into this process understanding that it’s going to take time. A lot of time. Progress will be measured in months or even years. Even in a best case scenario – you’re joining an organization with a high degree of psychological safety, the team was involved in selecting you to manage them and they’re primed to want to work with you, you’re coming in with a sterling reputation, etc. – I’d expect it to take several months to earn a deep level of trust with your team. And in more difficult scenarios, yeah, it can take years.

That’s why, once again, it’s important to keep in mind that the activities that build trust are also those that are good management. You shouldn’t approach this stuff with an outcome-oriented mindset. You’re not engaging in the behaviors below because you want to reach some end-state and then relax. Instead, adopt a process-oriented mindset: you’re doing these things, now and forever, because they’re the right way to do your job.

Behaviors that build trust

So, beyond the basics, what are the major management behaviors that can help build trust? I’ll enumerate some of them below. These are all going to be fairly high-level, just skimming the surface – I could probably write a full post for each point, but will keep them brief to avoid making this article into a book. (If expanding on any of these points sounds interesting: get in touch and let me know!)

Act Consistently

Teams watch their manager’s behavior very closely, and will take note of how you behave. If you behave consistently – if you react in similar ways to similar circumstances – your team can start to build a mental model of your behavior, and will be able to predict how you’ll act in new situations. This helps lead to a feeling of comfort: knowing how you’ll react – assuming that reaction will be positive, more below – will make it easier for your team to be open and honest with you.

On the other hand, if your reactions seem random or capricious – if you react differently to similar stimuli – this builds an atmosphere of uncertainty and possibly fear, and your team will hide things from you.

Communicate clearly and transparently

Clarity and transparency about what’s going on in the broader company builds trust. And nothing erodes it faster than lying or telling half-truths.

Transparency doesn’t mean “telling your team everything”! Your job as a manager is to give your team context about the rest of the organization – and thus you need to distill and summarize. Pointing a firehose of information at your team isn’t effective transparency. And there are also any number of situations where you can’t ethically (or legally!) share information. You emphatically should not be “transparent” about other people’s performance issues, gossip or rumors you don’t know are true, large organizational changes you’ve been told not to share, information shared by other team members in confidence, and so on.

I could probably write a whole article about what transparency really does and doesn’t mean in an organizational context, but for the purposes of “how do I build trust?”, the essentials are:

  • Do summarize and distill important context for your team; don’t just be a firehose.
  • Do answer questions and go into more detail if team members ask. Sometimes people won’t want the fiddly details, but other times they might. Be prepared for either.
  • Critically, be clear about when and why you can’t share more. When there are situations where you have limits on what you can say, say so, and explain why you can’t be transparent in this situation.

Be reliable

Do what you say you’re going to do. If you say “I’ll do the thing by next Tuesday”, then do the thing by next Tuesday – or, failing that, communicate very early that you’re gonna miss and what the new ETA is (and try not to do that often).

This is true for pretty much any role – nobody wants to work with a flake – but it’s particularly important for managers:

  1. Managers often have wider and more varied responsibilities than ICs, and are frequently pulled in many different directions. Their job is also in part reactive, making predicting their schedule and availability harder. This makes it much easier for managers – especially new managers – to overcommit.
  2. If a team sees their manager frequently flaking on responsibilities, they’ll begin to wonder where else they can’t trust them.

Ultimately, flaking out has similar effects as being dishonest: your team learns not to trust what you say, a disaster. So it’s critical to understand your own capacity, avoid committing to work you can’t complete, and meet your commitments.

Set and respect boundaries

If you spend any time at all reading Ask A Manager you’ll know the world is full of managers who push boundaries. If you want your team to trust you, don’t be That Guy: set and respect boundaries around work. This includes:

  • Work/life balance: don’t push people to work nights/weekends, encourage real disconnection during time off, don’t ask people to work when sick, etc. And it’s important to demonstrate those things – e.g. if you choose to work weekends, fine, but queue your email for Monday so your team doesn’t read an expectation into your choice.
  • Professional behavior: model and require appropriate professional behavior at work: honesty, keeping commitments, professional demeanor, etc.

And more. Even small behaviors, like establishing a culture of being on time to meetings, help sets a tone of respect for people’s time and attention, which, again, helps build trust.

Use role power rarely – but when you do, don’t be coy

As a manager, you have role power: the power to say “you need to do this because I’m your boss”. A trustworthy manager uses role power infrequently – “because I said so” gets compliance, not alignment, and certainly doesn’t build trust.

However, when you do need to use role power, be very clear about what you’re doing. Don’t couch orders in the form of a request. When you ask, “can you do …?”, it should be a real question, which means you should allow for and prepare for a “no”. If you’re not in a situation where a “no” is acceptable, don’t phrase the order as a request. If you do this – use role power infrequently and clearly – it’ll make your team believe you more during the majority of the time when you really are asking.

Give feedback: quite a lot, mostly positive

Most people crave feedback about their work – they want to know how they’re doing, what they’re doing well, what to change, etc. Done right, feedback can lead to trust – when the feedback is clear, specific, actionable, and helpful, you’ll be helping them do their jobs better, and your team will appreciate that. But it’s also pretty easy to mess up: done poorly, feedback can feel more like criticism, and will make your team fear you.

See my post Three Feedback Models for an introduction to feedback; in the context of trust-building, the highlights are:

  • Give lots of feedback. It’s nearly impossible for a manager to give too much feedback.
  • Mostly positive. There are studies suggesting a ratio of about 5:1 – that is, five pieces of positive feedback for each piece of negative feedback.
  • Make sure your feedback is specific and actionable – otherwise it’s just criticism (or praise, which isn’t as helpful).
  • Ask for permission before giving feedback.

Give credit; take blame

As a manager, you are responsible for the combined output of your team. This means that when your team scores a win, you do deserve some credit for it. It can be tempting to take accolades without acknowledging the folks on your team who did the work. Don’t! Nobody likes a credit-stealing manager!

Instead, make sure to always credit the people on your team who contributed to a success. When the team wins, make sure the narrative is that it’s all because of the work of the individual(s) on the team. Try to make your role in the success invisible1.

On the other hand, when your team stumbles, make it your fault. The narrative should be: the team did their best, but the surrounding structure was wrong. It was a management failure, not on any individual2.

“Give away your toys”

Trust is reciprocal: when you demonstrate that you trust the folks on your team, they’re likely to return that trust. One way to extend trust is delegation: giving people on your team the opportunity to take on some of the leadership aspects of your role. When you trust them to do work that’s more important or visible, you’ll help them trust you.

But don’t delegate the boring, tedious, or uncomfortable parts of your job; instead, “give away your toys”. The best work to delegate – both in this trust-building context and more generally – is the work that you yourself love.

Two related activities that most managers probably don’t do enough of are sponsorship and coaching. Both are such huge topics that I’m struggling to give concise summaries, so instead let’s try some links:

Both – particularly coaching – require something of a foundation of trust to begin, so these often aren’t activities that you can force onto someone, particularly someone who doesn’t trust you. But they’re things that, when you do them consistently, people on your team will start to want, and they’ll be inclined to take the leap of faith and ask you to coach or sponsor them.

Respect confidentiality but be clear about the limits

Much of what you discuss with your directs one-on-one should be considered confidential. They’ll bring you concerns they have about the work or their teammates, tell you about places they’re struggling, sometimes reveal things about their health or personal life outside of work, etc.

Generally speaking, your team should be able to rely on an assumption of confidentiality for anything personal or performance-related. If you’re spreading this stuff – or, worse, gossiping – that’s a massive breach of trust and you’ll probably never recover.

However, there are some serious limits to confidentiality. You’re not a lawyer or a doctor or a priest; there’s no iron-clad manager-direct confidentiality requirements. Some of the many exceptions to confidentiality include:

  • You need to talk about the performance of your team with your manager – and they’ll in turn talk about your team’s performance with their manager, etc. If someone’s struggling, you can’t hide it from your management chain.
  • If your direct tells you that someone else on your team isn’t doing their job well, you need to address that with that other person (assuming it’s true). You can try to keep the specific way you found out confidential, but sometimes that’s not possible.
  • If they reveal things that have legal, regulatory, or ethical ramifications, you may need to take steps.

And so on. It’s critical to communicate clearly and be transparent about where you can and can’t respect confidentiality. Don’t promise to always keep things confidential! That’s almost as big a mistake as gossip.

Instead, make sure your staff know what they can trust to keep between the two of you and what they can’t. Give them the information and context they need, and trust them make their own decisions about how much to share with you.

Ask for permission to give feedback, suggestions, etc.

The best manager I’ve had was incredibly disciplined about asking for permission before doing “manager stuff”. She’d say things like, “can I give you some feedback?” “Is now a good time for a conversation about the status of Project X?” “Are you stuck? Would you like a suggestion?” And so on.

This sort of asking-for-permission helps smooth out the power gradient between manager and report. It helps establish that your role is to help your direct be successful – and that you won’t give help if it isn’t welcome. Importantly, these have to be actual questions – i.e., you need to respect a “no”. If someone doesn’t want a suggestion, keep it to yourself!

The corollary is that when something isn’t optional, don’t ask. If you must act – say, a project is going off the rails and you need to step in – don’t pretend it’s optional. When you must use your role power, own it. Orders phrased as questions erode trust.

What’d I miss?

A lot, I’m sure! What are the activities that you’ve found help build trust on your team? Let me know: email jacob at this domain, or toot at me.

  1. Publicly, at least. For the good of your own career, however, don’t be humble when you talk about the success with your boss, on your resume, etc. ↩︎

  2. There are some I-hope-obvious exceptions here for things like maliciousness and gross negligence. ↩︎