How can we increase levels of trust at work to improve safety? This is a critical question, specifically when it comes to getting the most out of a behavior-based observation and feedback process. For workers to accept feedback, they need to trust an observer's capability (accuracy) and intentions (caring, not punishing).

Finding little "real world" research on building interpersonal trust, I called together a group of my research students and colleagues and asked them to brainstorm and reach a consensus on how to build trust. After almost two hours, we arrived at an interesting and seemingly useful list of proposals. We also learned something first-hand about developing feelings of trust. This brainstorming process brought us together as a group that relied on each other for ideas and feedback.

I urge you to conduct a consensus-building exercise similar to the one we used. Your ideas will likely be similar to ours-but the recommendations will be owned by your group. And people are more likely to follow recommendations that they had a hand in developing.

We reached a consensus that the following words-all beginning with the letter "C"-capture the essence of trust building. Use them to kick off your own discussion of trust.


What people say and how they say it influences our trust in both their capability and their intentions. I'm sure you've heard many times that how something is said, including intonation, pace, facial expressions, hand gestures, and overall posture, has greater impact than what was actually said.

There is probably no better way to earn someone's trust in your intentions than by listening attentively to what that person has to say-call it active listening. When you listen to others first before communicating your own perspective, you increase the chance they will reciprocate and listen to you, and you also learn how to present your message to get the best possible understanding, appreciation, and agreement.


When you take the time to listen to another perspective, you send a most important message that you care. And when people believe you care about them, they will care about what you tell them. They trust you will look out for them when applying your knowledge, skills, or abilities. They trust your intentions because they believe you care.

Asking questions also communicates caring and builds trust. Not typically generic questions like, "How are you doing?" but deeper, more probing questions. Questions targeting a specific aspect of a person's job send the signal you care about him or her. You're showing genuine interest in what people are doing and how they feel. It's especially powerful when your words reflect active caring about health and safety.


We trust people who are frank and open with us. They get right to the point, whether asking for a favor or giving us behavior-based feedback. Of course, candor does not give you permission to be tactless and inconsiderate. And when candid individuals don't know an answer to our question, they don't ignore us or hem and haw. They tell us outright when they don't know something, and they tell us they'll get back to us later. Then our trust in both their intentions and abilities increases when they get back to us soon with an answer.

Candor also requires a lack of prejudice. Candid people are not judgmental. We all tend not to trust people who show a tendency to evaluate or judge others on the basis of some stereotype or preconceived notion. How fair is that person going to be? Even when their prejudice is not directed toward you, are you going to trust their abilities and intentions?


We usually trust the intentions of people who confess openly their inability to answer our question. But we expect them to follow through when they say they'll get back to us. What happens when they don't-when their actions are not consistent with their words?

Whether the promise regards a positive reward or negative threat of punishment or discipline, trust decreases when the consequence is not delivered.


People who are dependable and reliable are not only consistent, they demonstrate commitment. When you follow through on a promise or pledge to do something, you tell others they can count on you. You can be trusted to "talk the talk and walk the walk." Making a commitment and honoring it builds trust in both intention and ability.


When a group of people reach consensus about something, group members are signaling trust in the opinions or recommendations of others. If a decision is reached that leaves out a minority view, there might be active or passive resistance on the part of those who have "lost" in the process. Without everyone's buy-in, commitment, and involvement, we can't trust the process to come off as expected.

So how can group consensus be developed? It requires candid, consistent, and caring communication among all members of a discussion or decision-making group. In her new book, Teamwork from Start to Finish (1997, Jossey-Bass, Inc.), Fran Rees lists six basic steps to reach a consensus decision:

  • Set a decision goal. What is the aim or purpose of the consensus-building exercise?

  • Spell out the criteria needed to make the group decision acceptable. What qualities or characteristics of the decision are needed to satisfy the goal? One criteria might be to stay within budget constraints.

  • Gather information. What information is useful for making the decision? Where is this information and who can provide it?

  • Brainstorm possible options. Does everyone understand each option and its ramifications? Has everyone had a chance to voice a personal opinion?

  • Evaluate the options against the group's criteria. Which solutions meet the "must have" criteria? Which options meet the "nice but not necessary" criteria? Can certain options be combined to meet both criteria?

  • Make the final decision as a team. Which option or combination of options best meets all of the "necessary" criteria and most of the "desirable" criteria? Who has reservations and why? How can individual skepticism be resolved? Can everyone support the most popular option? What can be altered in the most popular action plan to attract unanimous support and ownership? I'm sure you see that there's no quick fix to reaching consensus.


A person of "character" is considered honest, ethical, and principled. All of the characteristics discussed here to describe a trusting culture are practiced by a person of character. I'd like to add a few additional traits:

First, individuals with character admit vulnerability. They realize they aren't perfect and need behavioral feedback from others, for example.

Having the courage to admit your weaknesses means you're willing to apologize when you've made a mistake and to ask for forgiveness. You should also indicate what you will do better next time, or you should ask for specific advice on how to improve.

The surest way to reduce interpersonal trust is to tell one person about the weakness of another. In this situation it's natural to think, "If he talks that way about her, I wonder what he says about me behind my back." People with character, as defined here, always talk about other people as if they can hear you.

Back-stabbing leads to more back-stabbing, and eventually to a work culture of independent people doing their own thing, fearful of making an error, and unreceptive to any kind of performance-based feedback. Key aspects of behavior-based safety-team building, interpersonal observation, and coaching-are extremely difficult or impossible to implement in such a culture. Start to build interpersonal trust by making a personal commitment and implementing a team policy of no back-stabbing.

The seven words reviewed here are easy to remember and although their meanings overlap to some extent, each offers distinct directives for trust-building behavior. The process of building trust in an organization is ongoing. Consider it a continuous journey, one that is essential if you want to reap the many benefits of behavior-based safety.