Building and Rebuilding Trust at Work

October 26, 2020 9:00 am Published by

The issue of trust – and lack of it – is a common topic in our current culture. Comments can be found in any news medium and frequently in personal conversations. “I don’t trust him.” “They aren’t trustworthy.” “Big organizations can’t be trusted.”

The reasons why there seems to be an epidemic of lack of trust is a complicated discussion, in and of itself. Partly, because many people and organizations have shown themselves not to be trustworthy. First, we must understand what trust really is, then we can consider and respond correctly to relevant situations.

It is Not as Simple as “Trust” vs “Don’t Trust”

Trust is not a global entity – although we talk like it is (“I just don’t trust her”). In actuality, trust is situation-specific. We trust someone to be able to do a specific task. For example, if you were to trust me to fix your car, your trust would be misplaced because I have virtually no mechanical abilities. However, if you believed that I could type your paper for you relatively quickly, (assuming I had the time) that would be a good situation in which to trust me.

The reason it’s important to understand that trust is situation-specific is because we then have a pathway to build or rebuild low levels of trust. If we just say, “They aren’t trustworthy,” there is nothing the other party can do to remedy the situation. It is a personal judgment you have made and that is that.

Also, vague statements like, “I don’t trust them,” absolve the person making the statement of any personal responsibility. It’s like saying, “He’s a jerk.” A judgment is made, there is nothing the speaker needs to do. This isn’t typically helpful in building relationships. When we believe the other person is the source of the problem, and that the issue will only be resolved when they change, very little growth can happen.

Creating Situations of Trust

When we understand that trust is situation-specific, then a relationship can move beyond the “all or nothing impasse” (she’s trustworthy/not trustworthy). I can now say, “I trust John to drive me to the airport and get me there on time,” even though I may not trust him to manage my personal finances. So, when we’re having difficulty trusting someone for a certain task, it can be helpful to identify situations or tasks for which you can trust them and proceed in that area. This is especially helpful when dealing with new colleagues or those who are still learning their job – give them a task that you believe they can do.

The 3 C’s of Trust

Besides recognizing that trust is situation-specific, it’s helpful to grasp three foundational components of trust: competence, consistency, and character. They are like the legs on a three-legged stool; without all three being present, the stool falls over.


If a person or business doesn’t have the ability to do the task you desire, it is foolish to trust them to do so. Having the knowledge, ability, resources and capacity to complete a task is at the foundation of trust. This is why testimonials, references and endorsements from prior customers are so important – they provide external evidence to the claims of the service provider or manufacturer.


A person or an organization may have the competence to complete the task; have the skills, talent, and expertise to do what is expected. But if their products are of inconsistent quality, if they cannot consistently get the product to you in time, or if they, as a service provider, don’t show up, it doesn’t do you much good. In many service sectors, there are plenty of competent technicians, but if you don’t know if (or when) they will come to do the work, you are not able to depend on them.


In this context, character primarily refers to honesty, integrity, and the belief that the other person is considerate of your needs as well as their own. Trust in business dealings (especially complex ones) often relies on the parties’ willingness to trust that the information being given is true, there is nothing important being hidden or left out, and that the other party is not just wanting to “make a fast buck,” but that they actually will deliver the goods or services they are promising.

Generally speaking, it is acceptable for an individual or a company to look out for their own interests (they have to make money to stay in business). However, you want to know that they are not only looking out for themselves, but are considering your needs and desires as well.

Steps to Take When Trust Is in Doubt

If you are having difficulty trusting someone else:

1.Try to specify, as much as you can, what action you are having trouble trusting them with. Why? What have they done (or not done) to cause this?

2.Which of the “3 C’s” (competence, consistency, character) is related to your lack of trust in this situation?

3.Identify situations or actions for which you are willing to trust them. When possible, let them affirm their trustworthiness in these situations.

4.In the situations for which you are having difficulty trusting them, determine one or more of the following:

    a) What could they do that would shore up your trust of them in this situation?

    b) Are there certain conditions and parameters under which you would be willing to trust them to do this action (e.g. under someone’s supervision, within certain financial parameters)?

If someone is having difficulty trusting you:

1.Ask them directly if there is something that you have done that has undermined their trust of you. If so, take appropriate actions (apologizing, making reparations) to address this event.

2.Affirm your desire to be trusted by them and assert your willingness to do what is required to earn or rebuild their trust.

3.Be willing to take initial actions to demonstrate your trustworthiness, either in other situations or under specifically defined parameters.

4.Be sure to follow through and make evident your competence, consistency, and character, and that you are considering their interests as well as your own.

Trust in relationships is foundational to living life cooperatively in a community. Use these tips to aid you in building deeper and broader trust with those around you, and the quality of your life will improve!

Tags: , , , , ,

Categories , , , , ,

Published by
October 26, 2020 9:00 am


  • David says:

    While in the main I agree with your article and the tenets expressed, I would say that when a person consistently shows a lack of the 3 C’s of trust in every facet (performance, honesty, integrity, etc) it is fair to deem them untrustworthy as a person on the whole.

    • Paul White says:

      David, I generally agree with you – there ARE people who consistently show themselves to be not trustworthy, but I think this is the rare exception in the context of all the people we relate to. I think it is more likely that there are people that we are not willing to trust in a work-related situation (due to the potential significant consequences), but there may be less serious situations in daily life where we could trust them, if we needed to.

  • Heidi says:

    I read this from the perspective of trust relating to peers or about those whom you manage. Are there differences for trusting an organization as a whole or leadership in particular?

    • Paul White says:

      Heidi, I don’t think you can trust or mistrust an organization — it isn’t a person. You can trust or mistrust the organization’s


      (as a group) or “management team”, but you don’t really have a relationship with an organization.

  • I love this article so much! I love how you break trust down into the components and how you give practical ways to rebuild or build trust with someone from both sides of the coin. I especially love how you call out that writing someone off as untrustworthy in whole is passing a judgement and it’s not productive. I’ve been written off by people, and I have written people off. Neither feels good. Every time I have invested the time to own up for my mistakes or trespasses and worked to restore someone’s trust in me it has led to an even more meaningful relationship with that person than we had before trust was damaged. And, in most cases, when I have invested the time and grace to help someone rebuild my trust in them, it has led to a more meaningful relationship with that person. It’s not easy work, but it is worthy work. And as I am getting longer in the tooth, the more I appreciate that to err is human and we can all benefit from a little more grace in our lives.

    • Paul White says:

      Tanaya, thanks so much for your enthusiastic response. I’m glad you found the information to be helpful, and I agree “it’s not easy work, but it is worthy work.”

  • Julie Johnson says:

    Leaving the generally untrustworthy person aside, I like the idea of understanding what exactly we do not trust about someone or something, and continuing on from there. With better understanding we can then communicate more clearly & maybe express any “issues” we might have in the process, providing we are both willing. Either way, I think it’s a great way to understand exactly what we don’t like so that we may make changes it if possible.

    • Paul White says:

      Julie, I agree — I have found it helpful in situations to clarify (to myself) what about this situation / person is causing me to doubt their ability to follow-through? That then outlines a plan — either of further investigation, or creating a “plan for success”.

  • Sara says:

    Question – with the stress of the election intensifying the stress within an office, how can we “reopen” communication with members in the office who have shut down and refuse to communicate at all. What recommendations do you have to reopen those line of communications?

    • Paul White says:

      Sara, people “shut down” when they don’t feel it is safe to communicate. To venture out and say something feels like they are making themselves open to attach. So to “reopen” communication, the topic and situation needs to feel safe to them. The topic should be fairly benign (what did you do for fun this weekend?) and the situation should feel comfortable (one on one, in their space). Don’t try to reopen the communication with a topic that has tension associated with it.

Leave a Reply