“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
— Alan Watts
Most of us can tell the difference between a trusting atmosphere at work and a toxic one. In fact we can register it almost instantly – within days, if not hours of joining a new organisation. I’ve had a misfortune to participate in team meetings that were so stiff you could cut the tension with a knife. I also worked in companies where people were relaxed, friendly and honest – performing to their best ability whilst also having a good time.
Often we are so preoccupied with our own work and targets, that we accept company culture as a given, something that top management should be worried about, something that most of us cannot influence. However in reality, whilst good leadership is critically important, anyone at any level can contribute to a more positive, friendly atmosphere at work. Below are five ideas for building trust in the workplace and three things to be aware of that can destroy trust.
- Start and end on a positive note
When you join a meeting, leave distractions behind. Be there: smile, make eye contact, say hello. When you say ‘how are you’ – say it because you mean it, because it matters, because you care. When you leave the meeting, end on a positive note. If there is a contentious issue to resolve, it is even more important to be kind, focussed and respectful.
- Make a personal connection
Getting to know each other on a personal level is important. It makes everyone more comfortable. Collect fun facts about members of the team and run a team quiz. Who in the team used to work as a personal trainer? Who has a degree in horticulture? Who published a book? Make time to share childhood photos and memories. Play “two truths and a lie”.
- Practice confidence
Fantasticat is a team exercise for learning to identify and express personal talent and potential. This game is about a “fantastic cat” who is “fantastic at” what he does – how cute is that? In this exercise, a member of the team talks for a full minute about what they are good at, and everyone else in the team is asked to create supportive environment. Most people are uncomfortable talking about their skills and strengths, but everyone can get better at it with practice. This simple game allows the team members to tune into their strengths, learn more about their colleagues and get better at active listening.
- Make everyone’s views count
Always ask people’s opinions, never assume. Examples of useful tools for interactive collaboration are Menti, Slido, Google Jamboard and Miro. Using these tools, you can start to engage people with questions like:
- How are you feeling today on a scale from 1 to 5?
- How manageable is your workload?
- Rate your confidence in delivering Project X on time?
- What do you wish our management knew that they don’t understand now?
- What has gone really well last month?
- Expose vulnerability
In work relationships, just like in personal relationships, there is often a honeymoon period when everyone’s on their best behaviour. This can be quite pleasant but also superficial. Being more open can feel scary at first but in the long term it’s worth the effort. To begin with, think of one thing that was hard for you recently either at work or in personal life and share it with your colleagues – you’ll be amazed how much stronger your relationship will become as a result.
Building trust takes time and effort. As with so many things in life, little and often works best. Genuine, caring everyday interactions can have a more profound impact on company culture than big, expensive away days that only happen once in a blue moon. The key benefit comes from the regularity.
Of course, in the real world, our attention can’t always be dedicated to building trust – we all have work to complete, conflicts to resolve and deadlines to meet. Under pressure, teams run a higher risk of engaging in unhelpful behaviours which can damage trust that’s already built. Below are three things to actively avoid.
Speaking negatively behind someone’s back is a toxic behaviour. Not only it affects the reputation of the person being spoken about (who is not even in the room), but it also makes others nervous that gossip may be targeted at them in the future, too. Backbiting at work erodes trust and elevates anxiety. Just like with any toxic behaviour, it’s everyone’s responsibility to challenge it when we come across it. We can ask ‘Have you spoken about this to the person directly? Should they be invited to this call?’ As a team, you can also agree that if an issue occurs with regards to someone’s work, team members should raise it respectfully and constructively with this person directly.
- Being catastrophically helpful
Under pressure, many of us fall into the trap of taking on new requests without fully understanding the requirements or impact on other projects. Saying yes feels good in the short term but being catastrophically helpful all the time can conflict with your own and your company’s long term strategic objectives. Challenge colleagues who are saying yes without considering the broader picture.
- Blaming others
Even when blame is justified, it is not helpful. It makes people defensive and blocks progress. Always focus on the problem and the way forward, not an individual or a department. Learn from mistakes – they are part of the journey.
The workplace is changing. The way people work together is transforming from well-defined hierarchies to self managing teams. In a modern workplace it is everyone’s responsibility to contribute to a culture where people feel respected, valued and appreciated. Being a good role model, being honest about your challenges, as well as achievements, gives others permission to do the same.