Trust in the Workplace: The Leader’s Judgement Call

Whom to Trust

As a leader in your organisation, you work in a role where you cannot achieve anything of value unilaterally.  You need to work well with a range of other colleagues to achieve outcomes of benefit to your employer.

One of the issues you need to manage as you set about doing this is whom to trust and over what.

Understanding Trust

Trust is a central issue at work and a very personal one.  Different leaders decide to trust by quite different factors.  But usually the decision to trust – in other words the choice to extend trust to a colleague or workplace contact – is based on evidence of behaviour that you have observed or experienced often enough that you have faith in it.

Deciding whom to trust and over what is one of the ultimate judgement calls at work, and being wise over whom to trust and over what is a learned skill.

Trust at Work

So what is trust as it applies to the workplace?

I have adapted the following definitions of what trust is and what trust is not from Mayer et al (1995).  Trusting a colleague or workplace contact does not mean that you:

  • Think they are infallible and therefore are unlikely to make a genuine error.
  • Have complete confidence in what they say and do, or everything pertaining to how they go about their work.
  • Agree with everything they say, every view they put out there, or every opinion or statement they offer.
  • Can reliably predict how they will approach every circumstance at work in which they are involved.

Instead, to extend trust to a colleague means that, in the main, you have formed the view that your colleague or workplace contact is likely to:

  •  Approach their duties in ways that you can work with.
  • Handle themselves with enough integrity for you to be comfortable working alongside them.
  • Apply themselves consistently towards achieving the goals associated with their role.

Trust as a Leader

So, how does this research apply to your work as a leader? 

Recall an instance of when you were finding it difficult to work effectively with a particular colleague or contact.  This person could have been a peer of yours, a more senior leader or a member of your team.  Think back over your dealings with them and consider whether the difficulties between you occurred because:


 You two had different values, different aims for the joint work you were engaged in, and/or different priorities for the items to be completed as part of that work.

If any of these factors ring true then, in and of themselves, they do not point towards an untrustworthy side to your colleague, irking though working with them might have proved to be, and time-consuming it might have been to work through all the different issues with them.

You two were simply sufficiently different that you found it required more time and effort than usual to negotiate a practical way of working together so that you could get things done in ways which made sense to both of you.

But if that’s not it, and your difficulties with this colleague or contact occurred for another set of reasons.

Or perhaps it was because…

You were dealing with someone whose character was called into question sufficient that you came to view working with them as troubling or discomforting.

In this case, evaluating their behaviour against criteria for trustworthiness might help you pinpoint exactly what character traits they exhibited which were problematic for you, and therefore what issues you need to address with them.

To What Extent

You might like to review your dealings with this colleague (or contact) using the following questions which I have developed from the findings of Drucker (1997) and Sinetar (1988):

1) To what extent did your colleague or contact fail to act towards you with enough integrity?

In other words, to what extent did they fail to act in concert with their stated beliefs and/or fail to do what they said they would do by when they said they would do it?

2) To what extent did they fail to act reliably towards you?

In other words, to what extent did they fail to keep their commitments to you or fail to act in a responsible manner towards you?

3) To what extent did they fail to demonstrate active goodwill towards you?

In other words, to what extent did they fail to act faithfully towards you or fail to honour their relationship with you?

4) To what extent did they fail to be dependable in their dealings with you?

In other words, to what extent did they fail to use behaviour which was, in the main, straightforward and steady?

Select one colleague or contact whom you find it challenging to work alongside. What insights are you developing about the issues that lie between you? Which of these issues are about differences in what you two value or what you want to achieve or how you want to go about achieving joint goals?  Which issues are about your colleague’s character and trustworthiness?  What steps will you take to address these sets of issues? 


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Aryanne Oade
 is Director of Oade Associates

She is a Chartered Psychologist, executive coach, workshop facilitator, author & public speaker
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Books | 00 44 (0) 7747 868 368

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2 responses to “Trust in the Workplace: The Leader’s Judgement Call

  1. Thought provoking questions to really seal in the learning of this article. We will never get along with everyone, but learning from our past mistakes will move us forward.


  2. Although realizing trust in someone else is elusive and challenging, it is, as you say, essential to accomplishing goals in an organization. Over my time in management and leadership positions, I have found that I provide the strategic directions and goals that ‘our’ group must focus on achieving and then I “Trust” my direct reports to come up with a tactical plan to accomplish these that I get to review and direct.

    I believe that if I treat my reports with respect and trust that they can do what is necessary, they will either step up because they can or they will stand out because they are having difficulty with their assignment and my trust in them.


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