Defining what ‘TRUST’ means in a workplace relationship



“So Jack, what do you need in order for the relationship with Gill to improve?”

“I need to be able to trust Gill” Jack replied after considerable thought.

We are in a one to one session midway through a mediation between Jack and line manager Gill. They have been through a formal grievance process after Jack complained of bullying. He felt his manager didn’t listen to him, put him down in meetings and ignored his requests for support and development. The grievance was not upheld and what had previously been a tricky relationship was now almost impossible as Gill was furious that she’d been accused of bullying by someone with whom she felt she had been patient and understanding despite performance concerns. Mediation was proposed and they both agreed – reluctantly.

Jack’s answer to my question is simple. It’s an answer I frequently hear when I ask mediation participants what they need for the relationship to improve. But actually, it is not very informative. Why? Because moving from not trusting to trusting can only be done by Jack. It doesn’t tell Gill what she really needs to know – what does Jack need her to do to enable him to move along the path of not trusting, towards trusting? I need to explore further what ‘trust’ looks like for Jack. What does Gill need to do? How does she need to behave? What message must she convey to build the trust he needs? But that can be difficult to articulate and Jack will probably struggle to translate that feeling of trust into specific actions and behaviours. I’d equate it to someone asking you to ‘describe your perfect house’. Your answer might be, ‘it needs to be comfortable’ - but comfortable for you may look very different to how someone else sees it. It is better to see some pictures so you can say which ones have elements that make up your perfect house.

I can do the same with Jack and describing trust. I can introduce to him a range of ideas of what trust might look like and he can pick the specific actions and behaviours that are the strongest indicators of trust for him in this situation.

I work with a model of workplace trust which breaks down the broad concept of trust into 5 categories:

Competence – having the basics, the skills and knowledge to do your job, build on them and use them to produce good outcomes.

Connection – being human, connecting with the other person on a level which goes beyond the purely functional, providing support, care and acknowledgement

Credibility – working in an authentic, open way, taking responsibility, putting the team first and showing faith in others, working for the wider interest and benefit

Consistency – working in a reliable way, putting the effort in, having clear values and messaging and sticking with them

Communication – making effort to communicate effectively, listening to others, giving feedback and sharing information in an appropriate way

Considering what trust means under these 5 categories may help Jack to clarify his thinking. But these categories are still broad. To support Jack further there are a selection of specific actions and behaviours under these categories which all answer the question ‘You generate trust when you…’. He can then decide which of these appeal to him most as indicators of trust. Let’s take an example under the ‘Connection’ category. Two specific behaviours might be:

  1. Are open about your own needs and feelings
  2. Provide support to me and the team when we need it

We know that part of Jack’s concern revolves around feeling unsupported by Gill. It is likely therefore that the second behaviour will be more important for him. That does not mean that the first behaviour is not important, it is just less important than the second. By putting a range of actions and behaviours for each category in front of Jack I can help him identify which are most important to him and which would be the biggest drivers of trust. He’s not confined by the suggested actions and behaviours. He may well devise his own ones prompted by the suggestions. I encourage him to prioritise the ones he has selected, focusing on the top 4-6 that he wants to share with Gill.

Jack decides on 5 behaviours:

  • Provide support to me and the team when we need it (CONNECTION)
  • Give praise and acknowledgement when justified (CONNECTION)
  • Listen to me carefully even if you disagree, trying to see my point of view (COMMUNICATION)
  • Speak to me calmly and respectfully (COMMUNICATION)
  • Show faith in others, trusting them to deliver to desired outcomes (CREDIBILITY)

The rest of the mediation went well. The discussion around trust could focus on specific behaviours and Gill was able to commit to working on these. She had her own concerns around Jack’s performance but because she was willing to look at how she behaved towards Jack, he was open to focusing on the areas she identified as needing improvement. It was a far more positive outcome than either of them had expected beforehand.