Trust in the workplace is an interesting topic.  Trust starts with communication, specifically with the ability to handle Tough Conversations.

Tough Conversations are those involving anything that makes us uncomfortable, sparks emotions, requires vulnerability, etc.  For example:

  • questioning your boss
  • discussing performance issues
  • asking for a raise
  • proposing a major process change
  • correcting a coworker, or
  • asking for clarification on how anonymity is maintained on employee surveys

The less a team is willing to step into these Tough Conversations, the more space they leave for stories about the motives of others.  The more the stories grow, the more trust shrinks and before long, voilà! The cycle of doom takes hold.

Consider the annual employee survey when trust is missing:

Trust flowchart

In this cycle:

Employees feel management doesn’t care, doesn’t listen, and does whatever they want regardless of employee input.  The perspective on feedback is that it’s a waste of time and makes the person offering it a target.

Management feels employees are disengaged and not aligned to organizational objectives.  The perspective becomes a need to micromanage and control versus empower and grow.


Avoid or break the cycle of distrust and learn to handle your team’s Tough Conversations. Tough Conversations are complex and unfortunately not something covered in grade school or college.  We get very little training on how to handle them effectively with candor and skill.  Most people just wing it.

Here’s some tips on how to begin:

  • Accept that everyone is different. We all bring different Strengths, blind spots, experiences, and knowledge.
  • Avoid blame. It’s judgement and doesn’t move conversation forward.
  • Be curious. Seek understanding.
  • Clarify intent, yours and theirs.
  • Address feelings. They matter and are at the heart of why conversations are tough.
  • Clarify purpose. Some are healthy and some are not.  Choose a healthy one.
  • Be truly present and make it safe for sharing.
  • Talk clearly and tentatively
  • Choose accountability. It’s not enforced, it’s chosen.

To master the skills, there are various sources available including books and classes.  Trybal Performance offers a thorough course called “How To Talk About It” specifically aimed at conversational mechanics addressing the topics above and more.

Why invest the time and effort?

People at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.  (HBR The Neuroscience of Trust) Unlike the cost of dysfunctional teams, high-trust teams produce results and have a positive effect on your bottom line.

Have you been on a team with a high level of trust? How did that differ from your experience on a team lacking trust? Share your story in the comments below!

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