Trust is at the heart of an inclusive—and high-performing—workplace. When people have trusted connections with others at work, they’re more likely to contribute and learn, as well as challenge ideas and decisions, knowing the group has their back. When people feel free to take those kinds of risks without fear of making a mistake, it leads to smarter decisions and greater innovation.
But establishing trusted connections in the workplace can be tricky. For one, it means cultivating connections not just at an interpersonal level but also at a group, team or department level. Additionally, while trust is more easily established among people who are similar to each other, the workplace is (ideally) made up of people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds.
Despite the challenges, business leaders need to actively work at nurturing trust among people at all levels of the organization. By doing so, they can turn their work culture into a powerful and distinctive competitive advantage, where people feel safe to contribute—and be their most productive and creative selves.
Why trust takes time and commitment
People are often surprised by the lack of diversity among the people they trust in their personal lives, and that understanding can be instructive to how they approach trust at work. In one diversity training exercise, we ask attendees to write down the names of the people outside their families whom they trust most.
Then we read a list of diversity dimensions—gender, nationality, age, sexual orientation, race, religion—and ask them to put a checkmark next to the name of everyone on the list they share each dimension with.
What attendees often learn is that the people they trust most are very much like themselves. And on the flip side of that observation, people often feel less trust for those who aren’t like themselves. This is where bias can be created.
The importance of team trust
With increasingly diverse workplaces, this trust dynamic makes it even more important for senior leaders and managers to actively build trust among their teams. Further, employees themselves crave a sense of belonging—of being accepted and honored for their differences—more than ever. The only way to create the emotional safety that leads to belonging, also known as psychological safety, is by developing trusted relationships with people on the team.
Failing to do so can lead to many negative consequences. While individual team members may be viewed as successful, the team itself won’t be as successful if the team is fragmented and siloed instead of unified. Stress and burnout can also take their toll, impacting productivity.
When we talk about mental health in the workplace, we’re often talking about trusted connections, especially for underrepresented associates who can have a harder time feeling heard and listened to. Establishing workplace connections is a topic that’s often overlooked in conversations about mental health, and yet it plays a key role in contributing to an inclusive, productive workforce.
Building trust in work teams
Corporate culture matters, and it takes time to create relationships founded on trust. Here’s how to begin:
1. Learn the five steps to inclusive meetings. Meetings can be a great start for creating a more inclusive and engaging environment when the people who run them encourage sharing, listening and innovating. They can do this by taking the following actions:
- Review the list of attendees. If all the attendees tend to agree with you or represent only people you enjoy working with, it could be a sign you need to rethink the meeting criteria.
- Share the agenda in advance. Ensure everyone is prepared to contribute by circulating questions and topics the day before the meeting.
- Budget your time. Allow ample time for discussion and ensure everyone has the opportunity to speak. People who feel unheard or uncomfortable sharing their thoughts eventually give up and disengage.
- Establish ground rules. Actively discourage behaviors that could be destructive to a healthy exchange, such as interrupting others while they speak. For people who might be reticent to speak, permit the use of the chat option.
- Listen and amplify. When employees share ideas, amplify them and give credit where credit is due. Amplification is particularly important for underrepresented groups, who can be more likely to be dismissed or spoken over.
2. Remember the importance of small gestures. Microaffirmations go a long way toward establishing team trust. These are small gestures that carry big payoffs in establishing trust and inclusion. Microaffirmations can come in many forms:
- Pronouncing names correctly
- Making supportive comments during meetings
- Turning on your video camera during a remote meeting
- Asking folks how they are—and meaning it
- Taking an interest in team members—if a dog is barking on a call, ask for the dog’s name
- Making eye contact (when appropriate)
- Respecting work/life balance
3. Establish groups and programs. Affinity groups are often ground zero for tough workplace challenges, such as coming out to a boss or talking about a mental health issue with your manager. Mentoring programs, meanwhile, pair employees with a coworker who has navigated a similar path. For example, Cognizant Unite, our affinity group for persons with disabilities, is conducting a mentoring pilot program for associates who are caregivers for neurodiverse family members.
4. Develop mental health allyship. Allyship and psychological safety go hand in hand. Associates who regularly encounter bias and microaggressions—everyday slights, putdowns and offensive behaviors—can find their mental health negatively impacted. Programs that create mental health allies provide a place to turn where employees can be heard and, equally important, believed. Managers and HR staff are often the first line of defense, so training them as mental health allies—ready to listen and direct people to resources—provides an important safety net.
It isn’t easy to forge trusted connections among teams of people who are dissimilar, but the rewards abound. In exchange for helping people step out of their comfort zone, businesses gain new experiences, new insights and more productive teams. Trust and inclusion help people do their best work because they’re doing it in an environment they want to be a part of, in a place they consider safe.
September 25 – October 1 is National Inclusion Week.