Trust in the Workplace, Part 1: Why it Matters and How it Works

Category: Build a Life You Love


By Jeremy DeRuiter


I have been low-key obsessed with the subject of trust in the workplace for the past eight years. So much so that when it came time for me to write a research paper for graduate school a couple years ago, I took a deep dive into the existing scientific research on the subject.  I’ll spare you the citations here, but I want to make a compelling argument for why it’s important to understand how trust works and what you can do inside your organization, no matter your role, to affect the trust you experience around you. This article will concern itself with the first two parts: why it matters and how trust works. The next article will take you inside practical recommendations for how to get to work on building trust.

Let’s start with an overview of the benefits of fostering trust in the workplace.


  1. Increased engagement:
    Having high levels of trust between an employer and its employees leads to higher levels of employee engagement, which as reported by Gallup, leads to all kinds of juicy business benefits, not least of which is increased profitability.

  3. Psychological safety:
    It also creates a sense of psychological safety for employees, which is one of the key ingredients for being creating an inclusive workplace where employees can feel free to be themselves, take risks and speak their mind, allowing for diverse perspectives to make it into the conversations where decisions get made…which ALSO leads to increased profitability for the organization.

  5. Higher performance:
    If there is high trust between an employee and their supervisor it makes it easier for the two to communicate clearly and to be on the same page regarding expectations and employees work harder to meet those expectations. If there is trust amongst teammates that they are all committed to quality work, it leads to reduced absenteeism and turnover as well as…increased profits.

I want to be clear: I did not search for research on increased profitability of companies where trust is high. It’s simply a clear common theme within the outcomes of companies who were studied where levels of trust are high.
I’m highlighting “increased profitability” to help prove the point that building trust is something that businesses should be investing in. Not just because it’s the right thing to do for your people (it is), or because it will make your employees’ day-to-day work more fulfilling and enjoyable (it will), but because spending the time and resources to build trust inside the organization should be viewed like other strategic investments that reap profit such as talent acquisition, technology, research and development, etc.
How are we feeling? Are you with me?
Let’s dig into what’s really going on when a person says, “I trust you.”  It sounds simple, and in a way, it really is…we all form trust without having to think about it. But there’s actually multiple layers of psychological stuff happening behind the scenes leading up to that moment of binary I-do-or-do-not-trust-you decision-making.

There are three types of trust that are at play inside of us: dispositional trust, impersonal trust, and dyadic trust. I’ll spend most of our time on the last, but first let’s talk about the things that influence our trust for others before we actually start to know them as individuals.

Dispositional trust:
This is our baseline level of trust for other humans. It is the starting balance you have, like in a bank account, before other things influence that amount positively or negatively. It is formed based on the way we grow up from childhood into adolescence, based on our experiences inside of our relationships, as well as hearing the way that the people around us talk. It’s our inherited worldview on how much you can trust the people around you.
Impersonal trust:
This is how a person feels toward unknown others, such as groups or categories of people. So, yes, bias (both “toward” and “away” bias) comes into play here. This is why a person might feel more comfortable and open around someone they just met when they find out they both went to the same school.
Dyadic trust:
This is the fancy term for relationship-based trust with another person. So, once you’ve started to get to know a person and accumulate experiences with them, your trust moves up and down based on the quality of those experiences. There are two categories of dyadic trust, cognitive and affective (yes, more fanciness). Cognitive trust is based on whether you can rely on the behavior of the other person – are they predictable? Will they follow through and do what they say they will do? Affective trust is built through feelings of personal care in the relationship. Do they value me? Do they listen? Do I care about them and their feelings?

This is why I said that we’ll spend the most time on dyadic trust. Your folks come to you with their dispositional and impersonal trust levels already baked in. Dyadic trust is the one you can directly influence inside of your relationships and for the relationships of the other people inside your team or company.

To talk about building trust, I love the work that father and son Stephen R. Covey and Stephen M.R. Covey have done inside of their books The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The Speed of Trust, respectively.

In 7 Habits, Covey gives the analogy of each relationship in your life having an emotional bank account. This analogy is so perfect, and also works well with the ideas of dispositional and impersonal trust. If you grew up in a way that taught you that you will only get hurt if you give your trust away for free, you enter into a new relationship showing a negative balance for the other person, and depending on what groups they belong to, you unconsciously adjust that balance up or down from there.
Covey talks about how our deposits are always small, and withdrawals are always large. This makes sense to me because I experience the building of trust with a person as being a slowly evolving thing, glacially moving forward from one encounter to the next, where I might not register any movement at all until one day, I realize that I would trust this person with my life. But in those rare moments where someone has behaved in a way that breaks trust (this, by the way, is almost always a breach of cognitive trust, where the other person doesn’t honor a commitment that they’ve made) it resets us back close to our starting balance.

In The Speed of Trust, the other Covey breaks down trustworthiness into four domains: integrity, intent, capability, and results, using the analogy of a tree. Integrity and intent are the unseen strength of a person’s character, like the roots of the tree. A person’s capability and results are the spreading branches and leaves, visible to all.

He and his father both give tips in their books for how to go to work to build trust. I think both books contain a ton of wisdom and encourage you to seek them out. Meanwhile, I have my own tips, taken in part from their books, the research I’ve done, and my own observations.

I’ll be sharing those tips in my next article, but in the meantime, give some thought to how you show up in the world and what levels of dispositional and impersonal trust you bring to the party!

This work is worthy, and this work is valuable, just like you. I’m glad you’re here.

My very best,