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How to tell who you can trust at work

[Source photo: Oleg Magni/Pexels]

When I was a recent college graduate working at an advertising agency in New York City, a senior production director ignored my instructions on a project. After I returned to find it done differently, I requested he “redo it the way I asked yesterday.” Knowing he’d be annoyed, I raced back to my department to self-report to my boss. When I arrived, I heard him on the phone saying, “Well, why didn’t you do it the way she asked?”

Trust is essential in any successful relationship whether family, friend, or coworker. In a professional setting, learning whom to trust can be particularly challenging given its potential economic and career impact. That’s especially true today. As hierarchal organizations give way to more autonomous ways of working, trust is critical. Fewer in-person experiences also can make it harder to read between the lines.

In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey describes it this way:

“Trust is a function of two things: character and competence. Character includes your integrity, your motive, your intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, your skills, your results, your track record. And both are vital.”

I’d add a third component: consistency. Trust is reinforced or undermined based on past behavior. It’s an important frame of reference. Together, character, competence, and consistency represent the essential elements of trust.

“Trust remains the ultimate human currency,” said ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott in a recent video. Still even as CEOs and other leaders talk frequently about trust and transparency, employees are too often experiencing something quite different. In a recent LinkedIn poll, I asked how often people have found colleagues or managers to be untrustworthy and only 3% said never. Fifty-one percent said five or more times, and the remainder said one to three times. Interestingly the percentages for each category didn’t vary during the three-day poll, whether there were 20 votes or 200.

Such results are not surprising given the growing number of books attempting to help us deal with this reality such as Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About ThemThe No Asshole RuleBuilding a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, or Office Jerks: Character Guide and How to Handle Them.

Sadly, I must place myself into the five or more category as well. As a person who prides herself on honesty and transparency, I’ve learned the hard way there’s quite a few others who prefer to operate in darkness. I recall how one former colleague, senior to me, was spreading false information about me to top leaders at our company. I only found out because one of those leaders approached me to offer advice. There’s certainly been more than one boss who held out promotions as incentives and never delivered or explained why. And the list goes on.

It would be easy to say don’t trust anyone at work, but that often requires more work and denies us the opportunity to build rewarding relationships. So many close friends wouldn’t be part of my life if we hadn’t met at work. So how do you strike a balance? Here’s some advice:


When you start a new role whether in a new organization or on a new team, it’s important to recognize your blank slate isn’t everyone else’s. There are people on that team who may have wanted your job or people struggling to perform, etc. In other words, you need to understand the landscape and the players before testing the waters on trust. Start small and proceed slowly.

It might sound silly, but my dog is amazing at this. Take Lucy to a dog park and she hangs back on the sidelines, observing the other dogs before deciding whether to play and with whom. She does not rush into the pack nor does she try to engage more than one dog at a time. It’s wonderful to find a close friend at work whom you can trust, but it likely will be just a few and it will take time.


I heard former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi share the advice to “assume positive intent” years ago and it stayed with me. It’s also part of some very effective training I received at Lockheed Martin about having Crucial Conversations. How often does something happen and you make up a story in your head about why it happened, assuming motives that may or may not be accurate? What if you assumed positive intent instead and sought to understand the other person’s perspective? Your approach to that conversation would be entirely different.

I’ve seen it work. During my time as a reporter at Bloomberg News, a new colleague joined the team and started cutting me out of stories. After a few weeks of being increasingly annoyed, I invited him to coffee to discuss how we could work together better. He shared he was trying to prove himself to the editors and break into a well-regarded team. With that understanding, we developed an amazing partnership that allowed us both to succeed and become trusted friends.


Not all situations provide the above outcome. I tried everything I could to build a better relationship with the person mentioned who was lying about me. Nothing worked. And neither his boss nor mine nor our HR representative were willing to address what was increasingly a stressful and exhausting reality. It wasn’t until I went over both their heads that the situation was investigated, verified, and corrected. Full disclosure here: By the time that happened, I’d already decided to leave the company. And that is an unfortunate reality sometimes when working with untrustworthy and unchecked colleagues; sometimes the best thing you can do is move on.


It’s probably too much to expect that we all set this as a goal and have the problem disappear. But starting with ourselves means we can control the outcome. Are we transparent and inclusive? Do we keep confidences where appropriate and admit when we make a mistake? If not, what are the circumstances under which we are less than our best and how can we learn to react differently?

In the case of my younger self, I learned two lessons in trust that day. First, the senior production director admitted to my boss he thought I didn’t know what I was asking for because I was young and inexperienced. Instead of making a unilateral change, he could’ve double-checked and discussed it with me. And my boss, who remains a dear friend after all these years, demonstrated what it means to have someone’s back unconditionally.

No business, organization, or team can succeed without trust. Trust in leadership, trust in the business strategy, and trust in each other to do the right thing. Each is interdependent on the other but none so critical as relationship trust.

I’ve often said of leadership: “To lead, you need followers. To have followers, they need to trust you. To trust you, they need to know you.” And hopefully through that process, they learn you’re worthy of their trust.

Anne Marie Squeo is CEO and founder of Proof Point Communications, a boutique marketing and communications firm, and a former Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist. 

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