Language Matters: 9 Ways to Build Workplace Trust
At Galileo HQ, we’ve made it our business to build hundreds of strong teams over the past two decades. Whether across summer staff, Camp Directors, or year-round employees, we’re constantly pushing ourselves to learn more ways to create spaces for innovative professionals to thrive. We may not always do this perfectly, but we’ve learned some things along the way.
We believe that the relationships between employees and their managers are the cornerstone of a person’s entire experience on our team, whether it’s for a few weeks during the summer or for years. We also believe it’s the role of a manager to lift people up to be their best professional selves, while serving as mentors, allies, and truth-tellers.
We also believe that trust is the key that unlocks the greatness in those around us.
In order for people to be lifted up to contribute their highest, most creative selves they must trust company leadership, their team, and most importantly, their manager. This is also why people stay in a workplace. Conversely, poor leadership and managers are one of the top reasons employees leave.
The Inclusion & Diversity Lens
At a time when many are just now awakening to what life is like for marginalized groups in the workplace—especially Black employees—there needs to be greater learning and discussion about how to cultivate trust across racial, ethnic, and gender differences. While we don’t want to oversimplify the complexity or nuance of this subject, we believe the most important thing any manager can do is understand how building trust is central to supporting any team member, but even more so when it comes to members of underrepresented groups. On the flip side, the impact of any infraction upon that trust (whether intentional or not) erodes it far faster with those of us who’ve already faced a lifetime of systemic oppression in both our society and in former or current workplaces.
Back to effective tips. Let’s get down to it, shall we?
Though we are still learning about this within our organization, here are nine simple ways we strive to cultivate trust at Galileo, especially across difference.
#1: “Tell me more about that.”
The best managers do more listening than talking, and saying this uncomplicated sentence shows you care. Personally, as a Black woman new to Galileo in 2013, this statement from my manager made a significant impact on me every time she said it. Often employees might make a more subtle reference to an observation they’ve made or a challenge they’re facing. When you take the time to ask them to expand upon it, it demonstrates you’re interested in hearing their perspective, which then leads to greater trust. Then, of course, honor that trust by truly listening with intent to support in that moment—without judgment or looking to defend or disprove their personal experience.
Another note: do this for you! This article describes a co-leading relationship as, “shared leadership between two or more people. Each individual takes shared ownership over a shared outcome — much like improv actors on a stage all working together to co-create a single scene.” Ideally, you’re seeking to hire and create co-leading relationships with people that have strengths and insights that differ from yours, so this also creates more opportunities for your own learning.
#2: “How can I best support you right now?”
Let’s be honest, who doesn’t appreciate hearing this in our personal lives from friends or family? When we extend this type of care to our teams, we create psychologically safe environments where people feel a sense of belonging. It’s important to call out that with the current COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, this question must feel authentic to ask, given the current nature of your relationship with the person on the other end. A low-lift way you can begin to create this is by adding standing agenda items to regular check-ins.
- Asking, “How are you doing this week (scale 1-10) and why?”
- Providing a way to share positive and constructive feedback by each answering, “Something you did this week to make me feel supported was _____. Something we can work on is _____.”
#3: Give credit where credit’s due, especially publicly
Make it standard practice to name specific members of your team when repeating their insights or highlighting their contributions, whether or not they are in the room. As managers, our primary roles are to lift up our teams to be their best, and to call attention to it when we see it happening. With this, there are far fewer instances where we should be using, “I” rather than either “we” or the specific person’s name in conversation or meetings.
Example: “I love that we are talking about this new project. Ashley actually mentioned the need for this shift to me last month, and I want us to recognize that she was ahead of our leadership team in flagging this. Thanks, Ashley!”
#4: Get to know each other as humans
In kicking off new working relationships and/or as a team-building exercise, consider having people complete and share their personal “user manuals” so they can create dialogue and foundations for trust to flourish over time. Then encourage them to distribute more widely with either cross-functional partners, vendors, or new colleagues when they join the team.
#5: Be thoughtful about how you reference each other
How we talk about each other matters. If you’re looking to create a non-hierarchical space where new ideas can be generated and creativity can breed success, referring to those you manage as “direct reports” or calling them your “employees” are not ideal.
Practice referring to your teammates as “colleagues,” “co-workers,” “teammates,” or simply, “the people I directly support.” Try referencing your role as a “manager” versus “supervisor.” These subtle shifts can yield great results for relationship-building.
#6: “What I’m hearing you say is…”
It’s human nature to want to be seen, heard, and understood. When we use listening skills that include reflecting back to the speaker, it reinforces our care for those around us, especially during conversations that feel uncomfortable or otherwise challenging. And when we do this for others, it models how we’d like to be treated and understood, too.
#7: Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.
This gem from acclaimed author Brené Brown reminds us that we can demonstrate our care for someone by being clear and candid. We also recently highlighted a concept called Radical Candor as an incredibly helpful approach to providing feedback. As much as we aim for a culture of feedback and non-hierarchical communication, the truth is that sometimes managers need to be the deciders. That said, there are ways to do that clearly and kindly by being honest about where you are on any given topic.
Example: If someone is sharing their perspective with you, be clear about what may or may not happen next. Instead of, “thanks for sharing but I just don’t know right now” or “let me get back to you,” try either:
- Option A: “I’m on the fence and welcome your perspective as I make this decision” or
- Option B: “At the moment I’m feeling strongly about this due to XYZ reasons, but I’m still open to hearing your perspective on it if it counters those reasons”
#8: Model what it means to be accountable
Most often, as a manager, you represent the company to each employee on your team. When managers make mistakes without owning them or don’t take accountability for company-wide mistakes on behalf of the organization, it displays either a lack of a) awareness, b) care, and/or c) humility. Showing vulnerability—either personally or on behalf of the company—shows you have a workplace where it’s okay to make mistakes, support each other through them, and then authentically move forward as a team.
#9: “I believe you can do this, and here’s why”
Part of what it means to lead a team of engaged employees is to consistently look for ways to help them level up professionally. This results in trust-building through getting them to see new potential in themselves they otherwise may not have. This effort is two-fold: both presenting opportunities for growth and providing the tools or resources to be successful. Make it a point to regularly discuss projects or tasks that can continue an employee’s learning, and give them specific, timely reasons why you think they’re up to the job, then watch them soar!
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Viva Asmelash is an Associate Director of People Ops focused on outreach, communications, and inclusion. When she’s not polishing Galileo’s employer brand or consulting with her own clients, chances are she’s at an art museum or cooking at home. Viva is also an active mental health advocate in northern California. She loves fashion history, her dog Ruby, and helping to create more inclusive and equitable spaces.