Building a Culture of Trust

Trust is knowing someone has your best interests at heart, knowing someone cares about you as a person as well as your performance, knowing you can show up as you are, and knowing that person will be there when you need help.

Every action we do (or don’t do) impacts trust. Building trust means choosing behaviors that build trust rather than what is easy.

Trust is more than this warm fuzzy feeling we have with other people, it’s actually observable, measurable, and has a significant impact on team performance. In research conducted by Paul Zak, people at high-trust companies reported less stress (74% less), more energy, fewer sick days, more engagement at work, more life satisfaction, less burnout and 50% higher productivity than people at low-trust companies.

So how do we build it? We build it by showing up in the moments that matter (hint hint, they all matter, big and small). Here are some ways we can “show

Create Psychological Safety and Belonging Cues

In Dan Coyle’s book The Culture Code, he describes psychological safety and belonging cues as the source of trust.

Psychological safety is the feeling that we can ask questions, speak up, and take risks without being punished. Psychological safety can be built by setting clear expectations, inviting engagement and monitoring people’s responses to engagement. Keeping a tone of curiosity is key to these steps promoting safety. This is an area where our tone, body language and unspoken messages have to match our spoken messages. If you encourage people to come ask you questions, then get irritated or stressed when they do, they hear the message that you don’t mean what you say.

Belonging cues are actions, behaviors, body language and words that indicate to our people that they matter, they are seen, and they belong. Belonging cues include the energy invested in the exchange, valuing individuals, and signaling that the relationship will sustain in the future. This is being approachable, and making the other individual feel comfortable (as in they can show up as their full self and not have to but on an act to fit in).

Clear is Kind

In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown simplifies a strategy that builds trust, accountability and shared vulnerability: Clear is Kind, Unclear is Unkind.

Miscommunications happen. Notes get lost in the noise. Implied tasks aren’t always clear. We may think we are being nice and supportive and efficient by not addressing every detail, but it is actually unkind because it relies on assumptions and creates confusion.

Taking the time upfront to dig into expectations and increase clarity feels like it slows the process down, but how much time is wasted because teams didn’t have these important conversations up front? How much time is wasted thinking someone should have known an important factor, though it was never communicated to them?

Make space to talk through things. Ask clarifying questions where you think mistakes or misunderstandings may occur.

Brene Brown uses the phrase “Paint Done” with her team. It’s a code word in her team that means describe to me what the finished product looks like.” This is where one person is asked to describe what a finished product will look like (tasks, due outs, etc), and this allows both parties to check for understanding and identify where they aren’t on the same page.


Perhaps you read a recent blog post I wrote on Spoon Theory. I love spoon theory. I think it’s such a simple visual way of communicating physical, mental, collaborative, creative and emotional bandwidth. Our physical, mental and emotional energy reserves (bandwidth) are limited resources that must be replenished on a regular basis. Everything we do “costs” some amount of physical, mental or emotional energy.

As leaders and members of resilient teams we need to get in the habit of checking in with ourselves and with each other to see where we stand and what we need. Someone that has a stressful event going on at home cannot perform optimally at work because the stressful event is consuming a disproportionate amount of spoons (energy), leaving less for work.

As a leader, it’s important to normalize conversations around a person’s energy, bandwidth and ability on any given day. As a leader, you can facilitate recovery and redistribution of spoons. We can take this further by evaluating how we are distributing tasks. When assigning or distributing tasks for different projects, rather than thinking about how much time a task will take, ask who on your team has the spoons for this project? Or perhaps a certain task would cost one person many spoons, and another person minimal spoons.

This builds trust by creating shared vulnerability and increasing clarity. It gives a language to talk about what you need and trust that your team will respect and support you where you are.


Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. New York: Random House.

Coyle, D. (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets Of Highly Successful Groups. New York: Bantam Books.

Zak, P. J. (2018). The neuroscience of high-trust organizations. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 45–58.

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