Trust in a Work Setting

Posted on 3rd Apr 2019

Trust is the foundation of a healthy relationship, whether at work or in our personal lives. But we give family and friends more wiggle room because the purpose of those relationships is more about love and camaraderie than production. A friend who’s perpetually late yet fun once he arrives is endearing. A teenager who finishes her homework but not her chores is exasperating . . . but, hey, she’s doing well in school! A wife who hates to plan is “my little tornado”. A husband who’s all thumbs on house projects might still get an “A” for effort.

Now let’s go to the office. Perpetually late? Incomplete assignments? Poor planning? Incompetence? It’s a different story with a different outcome. At work, we can be patient and tolerant with sketchy performance to some extent, but not to the extent we tolerate at home and with friends.

Some years ago, Dr. Ric Reichart – a fellow organizational psychologist, mentor, and very competent friend – shared with me a formula for gauging trust in the workplace. I’ve since shared it with many clients, who find the formula a useful tool.

Trust = Competence + Relationship



Simply stated, to establish trust at work an individual must demonstrate a certain degree of competence (getting the job done well) and a certain amount of relationship skill (getting along with others). As risk goes up (swamped with work, new competitors in the market, loss of a key customer), we must increase our competence and/or our relationship value in order to maintain the same level of trust. Some people are highly competent in their job skills but low on “people skills” (e.g., many engineers), so they will naturally respond to risk by working harder. Other people are very popular, but not so good at “hard skills” (e.g., many sales reps), so they will naturally respond to risk by connecting more with others. These natural responses will maintain trust up to a point, but as risk grows people need to increase both their competence and their people skills to maintain the trust of others in their organizations.

Of course, leopards don’t change their spots. There is plenty of research to show that we perform at our best when we do what we enjoy and practice our strengths. But we still need to grow and stretch in order to keep up with the shifting demands of the workplace. It’s not enough to say, “I don’t like giving presentations in front of others” or “Don’t ask me to learn another software app”. To maintain the trust of our co-workers, especially when the chips are down, we sometimes have to do the uncomfortable.

Over time, I’ve tweaked the formula a bit to make it more useful. Here’s the formula I use now:

Trust = Competence* + Relationship**



                                                                                        *Job Ability and Reliability

                                                                                     ** People Skills and Character


In terms of Competence, we need to do our jobs well and perform on a consistent basis. Co-workers rely on one another to deliver so they don’t create unfair burdens for others and so the organization can meet its goals. Of course people make honest mistakes and get jammed up by circumstances beyond their control. Healthy organizations take this into consideration and don’t expect perfection. But the bottom line is that people need to do their jobs competently and reliably or they may be let go. Alternatively, an incompetent person may continue on the job and the organization will suffer. Ever seen that?

In terms of Relationship, we need to treat others with respect, show appropriate patience and understanding, communicate reasonably, and practice cooperation. These basic “people skills” allow us to get along with others, work effectively as a team member, and participate in a healthy work flow. The issue of character, however, becomes especially important in times of high risk. Some people have great interpersonal skills, but show poor character under stress. As the expression goes, the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire – or not. As the heat rises, some people become manipulative, dishonest, unfairly blaming, or outright belligerent. Unfortunately, people skills may get someone hired but – months or years later – poor character may get the same person fired. If they’re not let go, again, the organization will suffer. Been there?

This simple formula gives us a lot to think about when hiring, managing, developing, or simply getting along with people at work. When the heat is on, who do you want working beside you – someone who steps up, steps aside, steps out, or steps on your foot? I’ll take a capable, reliable, respectful, honest person anytime. Trust me on that.

 Gregory Powell, Ph.D., 2019