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5 Questions on Building High-Trust Relationships at Work

high-trusting relationships

In our day-to-day work, we listen to and help clients work through all kinds of situations. They come in all shapes and sizes, and we help leaders understand and navigate the complexities of the humans they serve through transformational coaching and workshops. One of the themes we often see and have seen an increase lately from our clients is building, or re-building, trust in relationships at work. 

Here are five of the most common questions we hear when it comes to high-trust relationships. 

How do I build deeper levels of trust with my team members?

The one thing we need to understand about trust is that, on the one hand, there’s a complexity to trust because what everyone values and what they need is going to be different based on every situation. What you might require from a doctor to trust them is going to be vastly different than what you might need from, say, an electrician making repairs in your home. What you need from your partner will be different than what you need from your colleagues.   

There are a few of the things we talk about with regularity in our coaching and workshops. The first of which is that every single moment you are building, sustaining, or decreasing trust. A fundamental framework we can consider is that, for the most part, three factors that often contribute to higher levels of trust at work have to do with what we at SNoWCo call the Trust Triangle.  


Are you whom you say you are? You might be saying, “Well, of course, everyone’s authentic.” And in our work, we know that not necessarily to be true. Sometimes we think we show up in a way, but we don’t’ always show up in a way that we believe may be or hope we would.  

A great example of this gap between our intention and our impact is using the idea of an ‘open-door policy.’ Some leaders say they have an open-door policy, and when that is tested by bringing ideas or concerns that challenge, that same leader will often get defensive or threatening. Genuine authenticity is about being clear and reflecting on the things most important to you, your values, the impact you want to make, and the self-awareness to identify if you are making that impact.  


Logic isn’t simply how we think. It’s also what we believe. Do your team members trust the way you arrive at your conclusions, even if they might disagree with the decisions you come to? Do they trust that you’ve considered different perspectives? This is incredibly subjective and will vary from person to person, but it is essentially about understanding and depending on how you, the leader, think through things.  


Empathy is the part of the trust that we have the most control over in the workplace. Empathy is our ability to consider others’ perspectives, lived experiences, and an understanding of if you, the leader, have your team members’ backs in the moments it’s needed. Will you be there for your team members? Do you make your team members feel valued? Do they feel appreciated? Are they able to bring their gifts to the table?  

These are all things that leaders can do to help increase trust within your team. And the reality is it won’t ever just be one thing that drives the way trust grows and evolves within your group; trust lives on a continuum, and everyone is going to be at different spots in that continuum at any given time and will move along that continuum in other ways with every action, or inaction, taken.  

The thing that we know is that consistency of behavior and how you show up is essential. So as leaders, one of the things we can do is do the self-work of knowing ourselves and making sure we’re showing up in a genuinely aligned way with the impact we want to make, never just going through the motions of thinking we are without doing that.  

Another way to build trust is to check in with the team members we support. And it is not to ask them head-on if they trust you or not, but instead, you could say, “What should I continue doing that makes you feel valued, that makes you be able to do the work you want to do, to show up powerfully for you? What could I do new or differently?” The act of asking for that feedback paired with what you do with that feedback can also start building those levels of trust.  

How do we help someone who came from a low-trust environment learn to trust again?

This is something we’ve run into several times, where we have leaders reaching out having hired someone who was previously working in a toxic environment, whether it’s a micromanager who eroded their sense of self and confidence, or they lacked autonomy, or their opinions weren’t valued, or any of the other types of trauma people may have experienced in the workplace.  

We often, as leaders want to build a solid foundation for the team members we support, but sometimes they come to us with foundations that are already cracked.   

We must understand that if someone came from traumatic work experiences, that does not change just because the office changes. From my personal experience, my first job wasn’t necessarily traumatic, but there were things about it that were incredibly difficult. I was doing a job that wasn’t using the best of my skills; it was a high-stress environment, some leadership was inconsistent, which created an exhausting work situation. I can say with confidence that it took me about two whole years to fully let my guard down, to trust that my new leaders meant what they said and were consistent.   

So, if you are a leader working with someone who has come from a high-stress, toxic, or traumatic work background, understand that it may take longer for them to acclimate to the new culture. This also means that consistency becomes essential on your part, follow through on what you say you’re going to do, make sure your impact matches your intention. The more consistent you are, you will help people move from being a skeptic to a ‘wait and see’ level of trust to, ultimately, a partner.  

You can also help by simply having a conversation with them. You can have a candid talk with them, not to necessarily throw anyone under the bus, but to have the opportunity to say, “Talk to me about your previous work experience. What about that would you want to let go of? What about that do you want to hold onto? What would be important for me to be aware of?” These experiences in past roles can be like ghosts, floating around no matter where we are, so from a leadership perspective, one thing you can do to help people navigate those experiences is to name those experiences and to give grace as your team member experiences your consistent behavior and learns to trust again.  

How do I become a more empathetic leader?

This was something we heard a lot last year, but we continue to listen to this year, as well, as we navigate the prolonged effects of the pandemic. Often we hear this question coming from a place of “We have some technically efficient leaders. They know how to do and navigate the work, but where they struggle is on the people-side of things.” When I hear this, I often understand that these leaders are likely struggling with connecting and communicating with empathy.  

There are lots of reasons people aspire to a formal leadership role; in our capitalistic society, it’s often one of the few ways we can increase responsibilities and income, but if you do not fundamentally care about the humans you serve on your team, you can’t be a great leader. You could be effective and productive, but you likely won’t create a safe environment for the team members you serve.  

People aren’t machines; they are humans. They’re complex. Every person in your organization comes with lived experiences that are different. Different values. Different needs. The list goes on.  

One of the ways we can show up more powerfully for the people we support is to work to understand what is important to them and how to help them best.   

When people feel seen, valued, and heard, they are more likely to feel safer.  

And when people feel safer, they bring their best selves to work.  

And when people bring their best selves to work, you get better work.  

A straightforward practice for this is to listen from a place of learning as much as you can. Ask for them to tell you more about situations they are talking about. Thank them for sharing when they do. And make appreciation a regular habit. Just acknowledging and appreciating people’s contributions to keeping the wheels on the bus at work can go a long way.  

How can I help team members figure out solutions instead of giving them answers?

This is a prevalent trap that people in formal positions of leadership fall into. And that is because their whole career, they have been rewarded for having the answers and solving the problems. They’ve been rewarded for their technical expertise or their ability to execute. This is what makes someone an outstanding team member, and so they are the ones that often get promoted.  

And upon being promoted, you want to keep solving problems and having the answers. Biologically, too, our brain likes being right, so there’s a little bit of an addiction we have to break when we transition into this new leadership role.  

Our default when a team member comes to us with a problem is, “Ah, well, here’s what you should do. It’s X, Y, Z.” The challenge with that is that while we are giving them the solution, we are not helping them build the capacity to solve the problem for themselves later.   

One of the ways that we can practice this is when somebody comes to you with a question unless it’s a safety issue, a regulation issue, something that requires urgent attention, is to ask probing questions back to them. This can sound like, “What do you think?” Or “What options do you see as ways to move forward?” You can also ask coaching questions like “What have you looked into?” or “What would success look like for this? What options do we have? What will you do?” 

When I was working on building this habit for myself, people would come and say, “Hey, I have this problem on my team,” and I’d want to say, “Well, here’s what we need to do.” And I would have to stop and remind myself, “Don’t solve; just ask.”    

Ultimately, what we are trying to do in any coaching situation is to get people to:  

  • Increase their self-awareness about the situation and themselves  
  • Explore possibilities  
  • Take inspired action  

We want to approach these conversations where a problem needs to be solved from an expansive place of discovery, not dictation.    

How can I learn to build high-trusting relationships?

I often joke that I received more training in operating a vehicle than I ever did in how to have conversations and build relationships with others. It’s taken me 20+ years of study to teach myself the tool and skills necessary to create truly transformational, high-trusting relationships in all areas of my life.  

Over the last several years, we’ve been distilling that knowledge into organizational workshops and coaching relationships for businesses across the world. But one gap has always existed, and that is an option to help folks on an individual level without needing organizational approval to proceed.  

I’m excited to offer a five-day deep dive workshop for individuals in December that will focus on everything we’ve covered in this article and so much more. As one of the few certified Conversational Intelligence coaches in the world, my colleague Dr. Teresa Peterson and I teach you how to build high-trust relationships through Conversational Intelligence and provide over a dozen tools and frameworks you can take back to your teams for use.  

Plus! This course has been certified by SHRM and is worth 13 PDC credits.  

Learn more and register today! 

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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

Comments (2)

[…] what everyone values and what they need is going to be different based on every situation,” she writes. Her team recommends a framework they call the “Trust Triangle.” We build high-trust […]

[…] what everyone values and what they need is going to be different based on every situation,” she writes. Her team recommends a framework they call the “Trust Triangle.” We build high-trust […]

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