Communicating Trust

In previous posts we explored why cultivating a sense of emotional ease and comfort among people in the workplace is fundamental to making them more positive-minded and productive.

That foundation doesn't establish itself. It's built with trust between team members and between leaders and their employees. And in a thriving, evolving workplace, trust levels are high in part because people actively communicate it to each other.

Let's start with how trust works, because communicating trust effectively is much easier when we know how other people experience it. The three primary ways that human beings experience trust are through reason, emotions, and physiology.

Businesses tend to emphasize trust based on reason. You go into a grocery store, you look at the same item from two different companies, and you have to pick one. So you come up with reasons based on what you know about the company, their reputation.

You use those reasons to trust the company and buy their product. A vast amount of corporate advertising focuses on appealing to reason to build trust ,as does much of management theory: give people rational reasons to trust a strategy and - theoretically at least -- they will execute it.

The reality is that reasoning hardly builds the strongest type of trust. Often it's the weakest, because we are emotional beings, and all it takes is one bad experience and trust vanishes.

I have seen this happen in business countless times. Perhaps a company is researching software systems and has winnowed the field down to two. One of companies has been in business for ten years and the other a recent entry to the market.

Those who have to make the selection must justify why they trust one system over the other, so they fall back on what they already think. They say "Older means more experience" or they say ''younger means more out-of-the

-box thinking." Either way, trust based on reasoning is easily weakened by subsequent experiences. If the software does not perform, trust is gone.

A teaching among some sales gurus is that every decision is an emotional decision. Even those who say they make decisions based on facts and reason are simply stating they feel better, more secure, using reason to make decisions. Though this teaching is not universally true, emotional experience is a much stronger component of trust.

Research in the field of psychology suggests that we are wired this way, because we are inclined to trust people with whom we share similarities. Regardless of whether we like it or not, we tend to quickly place trust in people that look like us, speak the same language, went to the same school, or grew up in the same place.

They are in some sense who we are. So without thinking we decide that they "get" us, have our best interests in mind. People in sales positions know this and use it to their advantage, by rapidly building rapport and identifying commonalities.

The lesson for leaders is that it's always a good idea to find common ground and emotionally rich similarities with people on your team.

The third component of trust is almost as critical as our emotional experience, and that is our physiological experience, what we commonly refer to as "trusting our gut." Cognitive psychologists who study how we perceive strangers have come to the conclusion that within seven seconds of meeting someone new - nearly as long as it takes to read this sentence -- we form opinions about whether we like them, and more importantly whether we trust them.

Within seven seconds we make a judgment about whether we want to invest more time with them and listen to what they have to say. What happens in those seven seconds is not emotional or intellectual because we don't have enough experience or data yet.


When we meet someone we feel a certain resonance with, our brains release oxytocin, a hormone which is responsible for a number of physio­logical processes. Mainly it causes a sense of relaxation and social bonding and connection.

It is the hormone involved when we feel an instant rapport with someone, when we feel at ease with them. So we are in fact having a physiological reaction that makes us feel even more prone to trust the person. It's an instant feedback loop.

We have a positive gut feeling, our brain releases oxytocin, that leads to enhanced trust, and now we're feeling more relaxed and comfortable with the person.

So now let's talk about strategies for communicating trust in alignment with the three ways people experience it.

The fundamental way to communicate trust via reasoning is simply to do what you say you will do.

This gives people around you clear data points and examples that they can draw on rationally: "she said she would get us more funding for our project, and she did." This in turn creates a strong reason for people to trust you and feel emotionally safer around you.

There are so many reasons why we say one thing and do another, and so many jokes about companies that exemplify this untrustworthy behavior. So do the opposite. If you act on your words, people around you will experience you as trustworthy.

Communicating trust emotionally can be both obvious and subtle. The obvious approach is to emphasize similarities between yourself and others, which we already talked about. More subtle, and more powerful, is to personally own anything you have done - or failed to do - that might make others feel let down or frustrated.

The irony here is many managers and business leaders believe they should not do anything that looks vulnerable. But the fact is, every one of us has a highly sensitive BS detector.

We can sense insincerity very quickly. So talk and listen sincerely. If you share your questions, others will share theirs. If you are sincere, they will know it, and you will get practice being both vulnerable and sincere without giving up your power or authority.

Imagine that you were not able to get that additional funding for the project your people are working on. You could pretend it didn't happen. You could blame upper management.

Or you could gather your team and say "We didn't get the money I asked for, and I'm sorry about that. It's frustrating when we're working so hard. I'm not giving up on the funding request, but for now we're going to have to get more creative as a team. I believe we can convince the powers that be that we deserve the financial support we asked for."

This approach builds emotional trust because it brings you closer to your team rather than separating yourself. It creates a new similarity: you'll all on the team that has to dig a little deeper to deliver a promised result. It validates what the team is doing.

It lets them know you don't just think they are frustrated - you feel their frustration. And it communicates that you trust them to rise to the occasion.

If there is a breakdown in communication between you and someone else, voice your sincere regret that it took place. "I'm sorry that there was a misunderstanding and that we're having this difficult conversation."

You don't have to apologize in most cases. Being sincere and communicating trust are both more valuable in the long run than the words you use in the moment.

Communicating trust physically is relatively simple: be present with others and listen to them. Listen fully without judgement. When we feel that people are listening to us with full attention, our brains release oxytocin. We relax. We communicate more. We share more of ourselves. All these steps build trust.


Effective leaders and teams learn how to utilize all three forms of trust in their interactions with others. They use reason, by presenting relevant facts, figures, and rationales for why people should trust a decision or course of action.

They convey a strong sense of emotional connection, by hearing and acknow­ledging not just the words people say but also the emotional messages implicit in them. And they show clearly that they are fully present with others, making eye contact rather than fidgeting with their phone or meeting agenda while someone else is talking.

Being mindful of and implementing all three of these approaches will help you communicate the trust that makes people want to contribute and perform. We don't have to like people to trust them, but trust is a requirement for a thriving, successful workplace.