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Working in a low-trust environment can take a particularly heavy toll on women and other marginalized groups, according to Spotlight Trust's Lisa Lambert.pixelfit

Trust in an organization makes for a better work environment. This may seem like a no-brainer, but unfortunately it’s not the norm for a lot of organizations.

Low trust in the workplace can come from a variety of sources: When a leader repeatedly makes promises they don’t keep, when gossip and rumours abound, when managers take credit for the work of their staff, when employees feel like an organization doesn’t have their back, to name just a few.

Lisa Lambert, co-author with Rick Kitagawa of the book The Future is Trust, says that when there’s low trust in a workplace, the organization can’t function well.

”We’ve talked to hundreds of leaders around the world and they’ve reported that when trust is low, it can be difficult to make progress,” says Ms. Lambert, co-CEO of organizational design and leadership development consultancy Spotlight Trust. “People hoard information, there is a high level of competitiveness, people don’t share ideas, there’s low morale.”

Working in a low-trust environment can take a particularly heavy toll on women and other marginalized groups, she says.

“[It] can amplify many elements that contribute to inequality at work including bias and discrimination, the perpetuation of stereotypes, lack of flexibility, lack of recognition and more,” Ms. Lambert explains. “It can also be exhausting to be in this [low-trust] situation if you’re always walking on eggshells.”

Trust builds loyalty, motivation, productivity, respect and many other aspects of a functional workplace, but it’s a complex characteristic that is difficult to build and easily lost, she says.

“It’s not a light switch you can turn on and off,” she says. “I think of trust as more like a seedling that needs constant attention and nurturing.”

As Ms. Lambert sees it, there are three dimensions of trust in the workplace: trust in yourself; trust in others; trust at scale. “That’s the foundation. Everything comes from there,” she says.

The third dimension, trust at scale, is the most complex because “there are a lot more relationship dynamics that come into play,” she says.

With this in mind, leaders need to take stock of the trust levels within their teams. If it’s low, start building a culture of trust by following the “five facets of trusts,” says Lambert: clarity, credibility, consistency, caring and connection.

While these are all interwoven elements that must be practiced to be maintained, credibility is perhaps the one that women in leadership roles must work harder to present, she says.

Credibility can come from many places, such as a recommendation or a high-performance track record, but it is largely about how you present yourself and your ability to self-promote, says Ms. Lambert.

“A conversation I have with a lot of female leaders is that many of us tend to be very modest and not as good at bragging as our male colleagues, so we don’t necessarily do a great job at showing our credibility,” she says.

Abandon the modesty if you want to appear credible and build trust among co-workers or subordinates, advises Ms. Lambert.

At the same time, credibility is also about being honest, she notes.

“Leaders sometimes think they have to have all the answers,” she says, “and that can be even more true for women because as a female leader there’s a lot of pressure put on us [to excel]. But I think part of being seen as trustworthy is acknowledging times when you don’t know.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I’m considering starting my own business. I’ve been working for about 10 years in a large consulting firm and I feel like I could make more money and have more flexibility on my own. I want to leave my current job on good terms, but I will be in direct competition with my old employer in my new company. How can I exit while setting myself up for success and maintaining good relations?

We asked Toronto-based career strategist and coach Linda Raynier to field this one:

First of all, I would definitely pull out your employment contract to see whether you have a non-compete clause that dictates whether you can start a competing business right after leaving the company. Some companies are strict and will state that you’re prohibited from competing for up to a year or two after leaving. If nothing like that exists, then you’re safe to proceed.

In this type of situation, maintaining good relations is not always possible, but there are a few things you can do to try to leave as amicably as you can while still following your dream of pursuing your own competing business.

When you are ready to let them know that you’re leaving, sit down with your manager and be prepared to explain why you’re leaving. My advice here is to keep it short and sweet; that you’re ready for a new challenge and want to pursue a new career goal. Tell them you plan to stay in the industry but that you will not be taking away their clients (this needs to be followed through on, especially if you want to maintain good relations) and stay vague about it. Truth is, if there are no legal conditions holding you back from starting this business, your current employer really doesn’t need to know your in-depth plans.

Let your employer know how appreciative and grateful you are for the last 10 years and that you want to stay on good terms with them. Sharing your intention to remain friendly and letting them know that you won’t be infringing on their existing clients are key ways to avoid potential tension in the future. Don’t be surprised though if a little tension shows up later on when you’re uber successful.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.