Building a Culture of Trust at Work

Introduction – Psychological Safety

Today in our work environments, trust is one of the most critical factors, yet it is still hard to build and even more difficult to find. It’s not easy to locate that specific organization and land on that exact team, with the precisely correct mix of team members with whom you feel safe. Safe to be who you really are, versus who you think you are expected to be. Safe to say what you really want or ask for what you really need, versus saying what you think you’re supposed to say, what you think is safe to say, what won’t gain criticism or negative feedback.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is a theory of human motivation, describes different levels of human needs, with safety being considered a “basic need”. The theory states that the most basic level of human needs must be met before an individual will focus motivation on the higher level needs. Only then – when physiological needs, physical and economic safety, and trust and psychological safety are met, will the motivation of people go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for social belonging, development of self-esteem, and ultimately, self-actualization.

Related imageCreating a psychologically safe work environment is critical not only to to basic human decency, but to attracting high-quality candidates, to retaining them, and to creating motivated, engaged, and happy employees who make up those high-performing teams we’re all seeking to develop.

The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She defines it as: “A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Establishing a climate of psychological safety allows space for people to engage in moderate risk-taking, creativity, and asking for help when they need it. It allows people to speak up and share their ideas, overcoming their fear and reluctance to share potentially controversial ideas or questions, knowing that they won’t be punished if they say something wrong or if they make a mistake.

As this climate matures, it gets easier and easier for people to speak up with their tentative thoughts. As team members share their ideas, respond respectfully to others’ views, and engage in healthy debate, they establish vital shared expectations about appropriate ways to behave. The extent to which team members truly share these expectations is crucial, because psychological safety is a property of the team as a whole. Establishing norms is critical to success and participation (for example, have Group Guidelines), but remember that actions speak louder than words.

Some examples of group norms could include:

  • Pay attention to the contribution of others and respond to ideas with due consideration.
  • Make supportive language expected team behavior.
  • Don’t interrupt or allow interruptions, but make sure the ideas of others are being heard and considered (sticky notes, index cards, take-a-turn numbers).
  • Be inclusive in all decision-making. Actively seek the input, opinions and feedback from all team members.
  • Acknowledge the ideas of others. Even if you disagree with an idea, by acknowledging the idea and giving it due consideration you are showing respect that you heard and acknowledged the idea, creating psychological safety.
  • Be accessible to each other. Being accessible is important so questions can quickly be asked and feedback can quickly be received.

Positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources. We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking, just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.

A lack of psychological safety can be found at the root of many noteworthy organizational errors and failures. Reluctance to offer ideas and expertise undermines many decisions and harms the execution of work that requires judgment or collaboration.

The feelings of trust between an employee and his or her team members and leaders can define the difference between a productive, engaged, happy employee and a potential impediment to your team. A safe environment where trust has been cultivated is undeniably important, but why is it so hard to achieve?

It takes time to build and can be destroyed in an instant…

A single instance of a team leader critiquing, talking over, or otherwise dismissing a concern raised by a junior team member can set a precedent for the whole team, increasing the perceived risks of raising such concerns.

So how do great leaders build this sort of trust?Trust-MatrixTo foster psychological safety, simply start small. Take small risks by picking spots to challenge one another or contribute a new idea. Ask someone else to weigh in with their expertise, even when you think it might challenge your own thinking. When team members think that their expertise is valued, good things happen. Small risks that end well are emulated. Acknowledging and appreciating a team member who takes such a risk — offers a new idea, admits an error, asks a question — is a powerful tactic for inspiring others to follow suit.

Slowly but surely, these actions build psychological safety. Even small acts that seem inconsequential at the time can pave the way for larger contributions that carry more weight. By creating a team climate that encourages people to embrace potentially risky contributions, the team will be rewarded with better decisions, motivated members, and improved performance.

Some other ways to build psychological safety include:

  • Encourage Team Members to Speak Up
  • Lead with Questions
  • Embrace Failures as Learning Opportunities
  • Drive Fear Out of Your Team
  • Commit to a No Blame Culture

“People aren’t afraid of failure, they’re afraid of blame.” 

— Seth Godin

To better understand the challenge of building trust and safety in the workplace, let’s dig into some of the deeper behavioral aspects at play.

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Nonverbal Communication

One of the very first things that makes an impression within the first 5 seconds, is your nonverbal communication. The first key to creating an authentic and deep connection with your team is grounded in effective nonverbal communication — in your body language, the tone of your voice, and the manner in which you speak (far less than what you actually say). Studies have shown that the nonverbal communication can account for as much as 93% of communication. As it turns out, gaining the trust of others comes from what you are communicating when you’re not saying anything at all!

Here are three strategies to help you improve your nonverbal communication:

#1:  Self-Awareness

Pay attention to your own nonverbal communication style over several conversations and develop a better understanding of which elements are consistent (tone of voice, pace/volume of speech, posture, certain mannerisms, physical gestures). This self-awareness will help to effectively use nonverbal communication to deliberately build trust with your team members.

#2:  Awareness of Others

Develop an awareness of how others are communicating, and adjust your own style to better connect with them. Take note of others tone of voice, posture, and body language, just as you did above for yourself. You will most likely find similarities between your communication style and that of people you feel a connection with; while you will find discrepancies between your style and that of people you struggle to connect with. Why is that?

“Familiarity creates trust.”

Recognizing elements of another person’s behavior helps us feel kinship with their character and a sense of empathy with their experience. Cross-cultural communication shows how challenging diverse styles can be for establishing a sense of connection; while a sensitivity to the nuances of communication within a culture help to deepen interpersonal bonds and understanding.

#3:  Unlock Connections

“Human beings are biologically equipped to be natural empathizers, so long as we don’t let our own habitual patterns of communication get in the way.”

Find that connection between your nonverbal communication styles to create a sense of familiarity if you’re having a difficult time connecting with someone. Notice their manner of speech and body language, and see how you can subtly weave those into your own behavior. Look for the aspects of the other person that are somewhat familiar already and start there.  This is similar to the practice of reflective listening, i.e., verbally repeating something back to someone right after hearing it. Mirroring someone’s body posture, movement, or pace opens up communication between your bodies in a way that words alone cannot, increasing the opportunity for you to develop familiarity and trust. When teammates feel they can trust you, they’ll be more likely to show you their strengths and weaknesses, so you can collaborate to find the ways to best create a relationship of empowerment.

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Empathy is having a shared understanding of how others feel. It is not the same as sympathy or compassion, which are reactions to others. Empathy is more about understanding things from someone else’s point of view and it has an important role in building trust and safety.

Empathy is the foundation for almost every healthy relationship in the workplace. The four attributes of empathy are:

  • To be able to see the world as others see it
  • To be nonjudgmental
  • To understand another person’s feelings
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings
― Brené BrownI Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power

How well do you know your manager and director?

  • Do you understand the motivation behind their decisions?
  • Do you understand their expectations of you and your team?
  • Do you understand their perspectives on the direction of the company?

How well do you know your team members?

  • Do you know how they feel about their work?
  • How do they feel about their environment? Or their peers?
  • And how do you intend to trust them if you don’t first understand how they feel?

Knowing the answers to these types of questions allows us to understand others and feel true empathy and form real connections. Having empathy and truly understanding others also helps with things like handling conflict. We can approach conflict more as a collaborator versus an adversary, asking:

“How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”.

Recognizing that respect, competence, and autonomy naturally elicit trust and promote positive language and behaviors.

Per Jon Kabat-Zinn, “…the interconnectedness invites compassion and kindness because no matter how different we are, we’re mostly the same.”

And per Brené Brown, the two most powerful words are “me too“.

Me Too

Remember, that just like you, everyone has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions; everyone has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities; and everyone wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent.

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People tell lies because they would rather live with the long-term consequences of lying to themselves and others than face the temporary pain of the truth.

Lying and Honesty

If someone is behind on a report, for example, they might stretch the truth and tell their boss they’re much farther ahead than they really are. And if they’re honest, it might only disappoint them, worry them, or make them angry.

How about the leader who claims higher performance numbers at the board meeting? He might not want to convey just how dire the company’s position is, so he wraps the truth with half-truths, vague facts, or inflated numbers.

Half Truth

These behaviors erode trust on both sides of the table. Despite their best intentions, it’s always better to push through your fear and vulnerability and own up to the reality of the situation.

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At the most basic level, the need for trust implies that you are vulnerable.

Promoting psychological safety requires leaders to become vulnerable and to share their vulnerability. Acknowledging one’s own failures, mistakes and shortcomings is one way to be vulnerable. When you admit your mistakes you help people become comfortable in admitting their own mistakes and failures.

The interconnectedness that sharing your vulnerabilities creates, invites compassion and kindness. A mutual understanding.


Very seldom do we equate the idea of vulnerability with trust in the workplace. We often relate trust more to dependability or capability. ‘I trust Jill to handle this meeting because she’s one of the best salespeople on our team.’ Or, ‘I trust my boss because he knows more about the inner-workings of the company than anyone else.’

But what happens when you have to put your trust in the new girl who started last week? How do you assign a new project to an employee without any reference to past performance?

At some point, you must recognize your vulnerability and accept the risk.

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Instilling a sense of ownership in your team empowers them to use their own creativity, find innovative solutions to company problems, and gives them a stake in the success or failure of your organization. It meets the more important intrinsic values employees want — to be recognized for their work — and that must exist in order to keep your best employees happy, engaged, and more productive.

By giving your employees a sense of ownership, you instill in them a sense of PURPOSE. They begin to feel that their work is part of a larger story; that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. Your ability to give employees a sense of purpose is influenced by the following three factors, which build upon one another in order:

  1. Trust  >  2. Transparency  >  3. Purpose
  1. Trust is first and foremost. If either side does not trust the other, performance suffers. Unfortunately, trust is often taken for granted by today’s leaders. A recent study found that while employees say trust is critical to their effectiveness, only one third of workers say they feel safe communicating with their leaders, and citing a lack of trust in peers as well. A lack of trust stifles any chance of employee empowerment, creativity and innovation. In organizations where trust thrives, they have seen countless benefits. In fact, according to Gallup, organizations with above-average levels of employee engagement reap 147% higher earnings per share.
  2. Transparency goes hand-in-hand with trust, and may be used as a way to create an environment of trust in organizations. When done through a lens of trust, transparency can indeed lead to positive results. Employees want to stay informed of their company’s vision, values, and strategic objectives; they just don’t want to be micromanaged.
  3. Purpose motivates high performance, as many years of research have proven. It taps into the intrinsic motivators that keep employees happy and engaged in the work they do. To achieve this, organizations must keep their vision, mission, and values transparent, at the forefront of everything they do. They must open the lines of communication and welcome feedback from employees at all levels. They must foster an environment of trust in their team, and provide a safe environment for employees’ voices to be heard.

With these three things in place: purpose, transparency, and trust, your employees will begin to feel ownership over the outcome of their work. They’ll feel connected to your company’s purpose, and this will create a tremendous sense of safety, and your organization will become more healthy, innovative and sustainable as a result.

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Continuous Learning

It’s only through constant learning that an organization can adapt to changes and disruptions in the environment, and psychological safety is the foundation of team learning behaviors, which in turn leads to team performance. Before a team can learn, and thereby increase its performance, it needs to feel psychologically safe.

“For a team to discover gaps in its plan and make changes accordingly, team members must test assumptions and discuss differences of opinion openly rather than privately or outside the group.”

– Amy Edmondson, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams

To accommodate the need for continuous learning, organizations are shifting towards team-based structures that encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing. Effective teams learn from their experiences and use the information gained to reflect and adapt to the environment.  An organization can transform itself through this process, improving its health and ability to deal with rapid change.

 One of the few remaining and sustainable sources of competitive advantage in business today is learning faster than the competition. Continuous learning has become a core foundation of sustainability.

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All of the above depends on the success one thing, good communication.

“You can’t just say, ‘Trust me’.” — President Nixon

You need to prove that you, as a leader, and the organization, are trustworthy. That you keep your word and that it is safe to speak up, ask for help, and make mistakes. You have to be a role model for all of the behaviors, group norms, guidelines, expectations, and ways of communicating described above. Remember, a safe environment where trust and safety has been cultivated takes time to build, you start small and cultivate it slowly…and you must be careful because it could be destroyed in a single instant. If a  team leader were to critique, talk over, or otherwise dismiss a concern raised by a team member…that would set a risky, unsafe precedent.

Open, honest, and consistent communication, both verbally and behaviorally, makes all the difference. And it will sometimes mean you have to be vulnerable in your feelings. You will have to empathize with your coworkers. You must be consistent in your message and reinforce it through behaviors.

It’s important to recognize that you may not have all the answers, and you may not agree with others all the time. Having a dialogue around issues that are important to you and your colleagues isn’t always comfortable, but it’s necessary to establish a foundation of psychological safety — knowing you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.


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Closing Thoughts

As you can see by now, trust is an intricate and sometimes difficult act, and there are many emotional and logical factors at play. Your own feelings about risk and vulnerability, your ability to empathize with others, and other peoples’ values, assumptions, and behaviors all play a role.

Per Brené Brown in her latest book, Rising Strong:

“The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common:

  • First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception.
  • And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.”

Recognizing these behaviors in yourself, and making an intentional effort to fight through discomfort and honestly communicate with each other will help create a foundation of trust and safety in your organization.

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Author: Nicole Coyle

I am a Sr. Agile Coach and Change Agent. I've been Agile ever since 1997 when I was a Programmer on an XP (Extreme Programming) team doing pair programming, test-driven development, etc. I am very passionate about Agile and coaching. I even have a Kanban board at home for my kids and their chores as well as the Agile Kids Manifesto posted! They just think I'm crazy, but hey, it works!!

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