How to build trust at work

In the past month I’ve delivered several workshops and team-builds for groups of senior and middle managers in the UK. While these managers come from different sectors and professions, the one thing they all had in common was a desire to build (and in some instances re-build) trust in their teams.

Several of these managers have contacted me subsequently to say that there is one model that has had the biggest impact and it’s one I’m going to share with you in this post. It is simple and elegant, which ultimately what I think makes it so effective.

The trust triangle

Developed by John Carter, from the Gestalt Center for Organization and Systems Development in the US, the ‘trust triangle’ offers a useful framework for thinking about trust.


The three foundation stones of the triangle are:

  1. Straight talk
  2. Listening for understanding
  3. Making commitments

Straight talk means direct, honest conversations and sharing all the information you have available. This includes sharing information that might be counter to the argument a leader might be trying to make.

Listening to understand supports straight talk. This brings to mind the work of Stephen Covey and his habit of ‘seek to understand before you can be understood. Listening to understand means suspending your own arguments, thoughts and biases. This is the opposite of what many of us do when we half-listen because in the background our minds are working to come up with a clever response.

The final foundation stone is about committing to a course of action. Trust is built when commitments are kept. In the event a commitment can’t be kept, then see foundation stone one – have a direct, honest conversation about why things have changed.


The three foundation stones help us to be seen as reliable. We do what we say we’re going to do. We show we’ve listened and understood through our actions. And we keep people updated, even if the message is difficult.


The more reliable you are, the more likely it is that people will trust you. Broken promises and half-truths lead to a person being seen as unreliable and hence, untrustworthy.


According to the model, the more we trust a person, the more likely it is we respect them. Based on this model, respect for a person is driven by their behaviour where they keep their word, act with integrity and genuinely work with others. They also do the right thing, even if that’s the difficult thing – such as delivering an unpalatable message to staff.

Using the model

When I work with leaders, managers and their teams many of them want to jump to the respect stage – “we want to have a culture of respect”. This model is a great way of helping people better understand trust and respect. The three foundation stones, in particular, are a simple formula that teams can build a set of specific behaviours around.

It’s also a helpful way to explore when relationships have gone awry. For example, I’ve used it with several coaching clients whose relationships with their respective bosses aren’t where they should be.

Some of my clients have even printed off the trust triangle and put it in a prominent place in their various offices. Not only does this help keep the model front-of-mind but it also helps create a dialogue with colleagues.

A few clients have the foundation stones as key things to talk about as part of team meetings. For example, one senior manager asks “How am I doing in relation to straight talk?” “How have we been doing in listening to understand?” This approach helps the model become part of the fabric of team life.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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  1. As a new matron in a critical care unit i fully believe in the human approach when leading. This model reminds us that if we get the basics right we will foster a trusting valued workforce.


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