How to Build a Culture of Trust That Works

February 7, 2023

Over the last 30 years, I’ve worked with owners and managers who wanted their employees to trust them. Cutting through all the business-speak, that’s what their need came down to. They also wanted their employees to trust one another, be more cohesive as a team, and (my add here) “put their whole selves in” like the hokey-pokey. 

Sometimes I was asked to accomplish this through a better hiring process (i.e., find people with impeccable integrity, great communication skills, enthusiasm, with perfect skills and experience). Sometimes it was through survey data, interviews, and training. 

These more traditional HR practices can be helpful but have limited success. Two lessons I’ve learned about trust-building are: 

- No one can hire or train people into trust. It’s definitely a work culture thing. And people make the culture. 

- While leaders have more influence than other employees in determining work culture, the greatest influence is how people talk to one another – especially about hard things like conflict.

There are myriad reasons why conflict isn’t dealt with more openly at work. Although conflict isn’t taboo in the 21st century, I still hear people say, “Conflict is unprofessional” or “when you talk about problems, you invite more negativity.”

As humans, we have conflict, and we will have conflict–within ourselves, with others, mulling over decisions–regardless of how enlightened or professional we are. If any aspect of our work affects or is affected by others, we have an ethical obligation to broach conflict with the intention of resolution or at the very least, to find a better way. 

Our greater culture is obsessed with producing, consuming, and marketing “our best lives” with little room for uncertainty and vulnerability. Further, we tend to do what we’re rewarded for. Expressing a conflict and working through it is typically not rewarded at work. 

A Better Way

Healthy ways of expressing and addressing conflict include taking responsibility for listening to others with curiosity (not being certain about another’s intentions), acknowledging our own unmet needs beneath our negative feelings, and making requests (and hearing others’ requests) to better meet those needs. Learning and practicing this process can truly change the culture to one of integrity, lower stress, trust and higher work engagement.

Nonviolent Communication at a Glance

- Observation: We take in what a coworker says: we listen, look, fully attend, and not interrupt. It’s helpful to ask if you could repeat verbatim what you heard, for clarity. 

- Feelings: We acknowledge possible feelings of annoyance, irritation, resentment, defensiveness, anger.

- Needs: It’s okay to state our feelings, but it is MOST VITAL to understand what unfulfilled human need lies beneath that feeling. Are you needing more respect? If you feel micromanaged, do you need more autonomy, freedom, space? The unmet need(s) is key to being able to resolve the conflict by making requests. 

- Requests: Once we know the unmet need driving our negative feelings, we can ask our  coworker to change their behavior in a way that helps meet the need.

As I posted last week, this 4-step model is theoretically simple. But to make it stick, we need permission and space to practice. We need to know we can attempt and fail and that our work climate will support us in the practice of nonviolent communication. 

A climate of support looks like this: 

- Employees know that their leads/managers are practicing NVC, sometimes failing, but continuing 

- Employees won’t be punished for taking a few minutes to talk to a coworker about conflict (organizations may want to specify time frames when these interactions are less interruptive to peak business times) 

- Everyone’s progress will be positively acknowledged–especially face-to-face in real time

- Leaders will continue to talk and write about culture that employees are helping to build

NVC fully aligns with the principles of Restorative Practices that are based on these values

If your organization ascribes or aspires to these values and wants to develop a culture of trust and real communication, please reach out to us here.

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