Trust and Needs in the Workplace
Building a foundation based on trust creates the power needed to move your organization forward. It’s worth the time and attention because you’ll reap massive benefits down the road. So, what is trust, exactly? Is it telling the truth? Perhaps the words ethical behavior come to mind, or transparency. Those sound right. To better understand what defines trust in the workplace, though, consider Dr. Duane C. Tway Jr.’s three perceptions to contextualize trust:
- Capacity for trust: The ability to trust others based on your experiences, interaction, and life wisdom.
- Perception of competence: The evaluation of yours or others’ skills and the ability to do the job effectively.
- Perception of intention: The effect of words, actions, and deeds as positively or negatively impacting others.
This framework provides a compact assessment when it comes to trust. On a mostly subconscious level, people utilize these categories to determine the trustworthiness of those they date, hire, and follow, seamlessly. Wait — did that sentence say date?
Consider this example: When you’re dating someone, you first wonder whether you can trust them. Past experiences will dictate the depth of your abilities to trust — if someone once cheated on you, chances are your trust threshold will be lower. Next, you assess your dating partner: Is this person suitable to be in a relationship with me (or anyone else)? Do they possess the capacity to fulfill my needs? Then, based on going out a few times, comes the assessment of everything from table manners, to how they speak to their mother, to how they treat coworkers and friends and engage others on social media, and so on. Your assessments create a perception of the other person’s intention in the world to be positive or negative, stable or volatile, violent or gentle — and all factor into figuring out whether you should trust them. Your assessment may happen consciously or unconsciously.
A similar process takes place in a business environment:
- The staff will make their own determination on how much they can trust you (or anyone in a position of authority).
- From there, they will decide whether you have the skills and experience to do your job and therefore effectively lead the organization. You may be surprised just how much research they may do on you through networking and Internet searching.
- Then they will watch you, listen to you, and assess your every move to determine the authenticity of your intention as “real” or not. They will interpret your body language and evaluate your engagements with different team members to decide whether you’re fair or whether you show favoritism.
The list of assessments can seem endless. Assessing others’ level of trustworthiness is a survival mechanism deeply ingrained within everyone. It’s very real.
The baseline needs of a human being come into play when establishing trust, as this discussion is meant to show. Trust is also the precursor to motivating people. Snap one puzzle piece into the next to continue cement a powerful leadership position.
Use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to determine baseline trust
The most widely known needs theory is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, developed in 1943. Abraham Maslow’s concept of needs has been applied to such areas as politics, social impact of events, and workplace attitudes for good reason — it makes perfect sense. The theory was updated in the 1960s and 1970s, but still intact are Maslow’s three levels of needs each human being experiences:
- Deficiencies: Basic needs including fundamental physiological human needs such as food, water, health, shelter, and sex, but also, interestingly, employment, safety, and sociability.
- Growth: Feelings of accomplishment, achievement, respect for others and self, esteem, prestige, connection, meaningfulness, and belonging are some examples.
- Self-achieving: Self-awareness needs, achieving one’s full potential, giving back, and helping others achieve self-actualization and transcendence.
As a leader, you have responsibilities to your people: to be a guardian, to be of service to those you lead, to be generous, and to diligently safeguard their rights. Those may sound like lofty ideals. However, consider that your organization is the one that will fill an employee’s basic deficiencies by providing gainful employment with fair wages, permitting them to pay their rent, buy food, and create a warm, safe, and dry environment for themselves and their families. That’s reality — not a lofty ideal. Additionally, providing a safe, growth-oriented company culture fulfills the growth needs of feeling accomplished, prestige, connection, and so on.
The survival mechanism drives people to fulfill these levels of needs, partially, through their work. The depth of trust an individual feels depends on how well those needs are filled. Tway’s framing of the three contexts provides the sequence toward establishing trust. As employees view you, their leader, and the organization as ones that treat everyone fairly, with esteem, affording them the dignity to create a life for themselves and their families, the sequence is satisfied.
Employees can and do assess and reassess trustworthiness at any time. Consistency in keeping their trust builds loyalty and forgiveness. When you stumble, they will forgive you and keep working because, after all, everyone makes mistakes. On the flip side, if you’re consistently careless, they won’t give you the benefit of the doubt if there are missteps — ever.
As a leader/employer, you hold these needs in your hands; they are each individual’s social and economic requirements to feel safe and secure. Although not every person can be hired, and not every person will be retained indefinitely, understanding the impact you have on his or her lives will, hopefully, provide the motivation for you to stay the course.
Shift from Halt to happiness at work
A Halt environment is one where trust is in limited supply. A continued state of distrust creates tension. People feel defensive and are always “on guard.” Staffers look over their shoulders to see who or what may be lurking behind a comment. They wait for the other shoe to drop, anticipating the thump as it hits the floor. It’s a terrible company culture. The team burns out, and creativity atrophies. Cultural entropy engulfs the group with unproductive and often unnecessarily extra work, fostering resentment and discontent. This isn’t a fun or inspiring place to work.
Note that although sometimes distrust may create an immediate, short-term gain or growth spurt for a company as staff compete internally for recognition and success, it is short-lived. VBL is very much against the idea of sowing mistrust to foster internal competition.
Sifting through theory, practical and applied, of how to build connectivity and trust comes down to a few basic components. People want those basic needs met, but they also want to be seen, heard, and recognized, and they want to do meaningful work, with the goal of giving back to others. The figure shows the conversion of the original needs that Maslow defines into three categories of workplace needs.
When working with someone, ask yourself: Has this person been seen, heard, and recognized? You can frame this as regular team maintenance. It’s not about breaking out trophies. The things that are often most meaningful and motivating to others are simple and cost very little. Providing a team member or colleague the opportunity to be an effective member/contributor to the team, to listen to what they say, and to recognize, verbally or through actions, that you’ve heard and seen them takes very little time.
Individuals aren’t all the same; how they like to be recognized may vary. They may want to be allowed to
- Share their ideas.
- Support others through formal or informal mentorship.
- Have their small successes celebrated on the road to larger achievements.
- Be involved with problem solving.
- Train for current and future roles.