Trusted Communication Changes Everything

- 5 min read

In a low-trust culture, communication is guarded.

Trust is the currency of effective relationships, both personal and professional. It’s the invisible force that propels people and companies toward success. High trust makes communication easier, faster, more open, and engaging.

The difference between a high-trust relationship and a low-trust relationship is palpable.

Leaders and managers show up for others with intentional behaviors that create confidence—and, ultimately, trust—to make it easy to work with and do business with them. Whether we realize it or not, we send signals to others on just how much trust we’re going to extend. Think of it as trust bandwidth.

In high-trust communication, if you have a large trust bandwidth, you can say the wrong thing and people will still get your meaning or readily accept a reversal or even an apology. When we operate with high trust with each other, we can even pre-forgive each other. “I know you’re going to make a mistake at some point,” a leader can say. “You’re human, and so am I. What I know is your genuine intent is to strive for our organization’s success.”

In low-trust communication, we show up as skeptics, waiting to seize on those same slip-ups as evidence that our worst assumptions about each other are true. In a low-trust relationship, you can speak carefully, even precisely, and others may still misinterpret you. Think about how much more preparation you have to do when you’re suspicious of other people’s motives, about how much more we have to get our ducks in a row because we feel others are going to snipe at our credibility.

These are trust “taxes”—communication “fees” we know we’re going to pay because we know we’re dealing with a person who lacks trust in us, or vice versa. In a low-trust culture, communication is guarded, and that means results take longer and cost more.

These taxes are costly in so many ways. One of the most prominent is in the speed at which each of us and the organization moves.

If, say, we’re writing an email or message to an executive, manager, or co-worker with whom we have a high level of trust, it can be dashed off in seconds. If, however, we’re trying to communicate with someone with whom we have a low level of trust, we may find ourselves reworking, massaging, or editing for far too long in hopes of not being misconstrued. Even then, the odds remain high that it won’t land well.

The tax comes to bear in planning meetings, too, and conversations in which employees are asked to think creatively. They’re told the dialogue is meant to be explorative or experimental, a classic brainstorm where ideas of all kinds—good, bad, even crazy—are encouraged.

Of course, in a low-trust culture, no employee is likely to offer an idea that at first blush might have potential but feels far-fetched. In a low-trust culture, any form of communication that feels even a bit risky will likely be self-censored. Never mind that often the most innovative ideas come from a place that first may seem laughable. If an employee feels like they might be laughed at, the idea will never surface. With no trust, creativity isn’t a realistic goal. The best you’ll accomplish is compliance.

With no trust, communication requires a constant declaration of intent, otherwise some will ascribe intent or motive, often in the most negative terms. Yes, in particular situations this is unavoidable. A certain percentage of people are wired for drama and make life harder. But the majority of people within an organization are not and will give the benefit of the doubt if trust is shown to them early and often. Communication also refers, of course, to the specific words that are used. There are all kinds of language choices organizations favor, often unconsciously, that come across as exclusionary, weakening trust and dampening the enthusiasm of employees.

Low-trust environments where communication is guarded will display themselves after the meeting, where employees can speak safely to a close colleague or small group—rather than risk sharing their thoughts in the larger meeting. Worse still are environments where open communication is supposedly valued but where credit is never properly given. If an employee knows that sharing information will only mean that their boss will hoard it for themselves so that all the reflected glory goes to them, you can guarantee that information will never see the light of day.

This is where a lack of high-trust communication hurts the most: In the places where its absence is hardest to measure, or in the failure to surface ideas that could elevate the entire business, or the loss of an idea kept private because someone didn’t feel safe sharing it.

Yet just as a low-trust environment effectively charges a tax, so too does a high-trust environment yield dividends. When trust is high, the dividend you receive is like a performance multiplier, elevating and improving every dimension of your organization.

That is especially true when it comes to communications. When the level of trust has created a safe enough environment to surface every idea, be they good or bad. The level of trust ensures that everyone feels comfortable being themselves, speaking informally when appropriate, and moving at a speed that can only be reached when everyone knows their words won’t be misinterpreted or used as weapons against them.

Trust is the bridge that connects individuals, teams, and organizations on the path to excellence, making it an indispensable foundation that underlies all effective communication. Through intensive trust-building efforts, executives, managers, and all employees can tap into their power and navigate the ever-changing landscape of the modern workplace with confidence and success.

Next Steps

Explore our approach to building a winning culture >

For a deeper dive into the framework and language of trust, explore our course Working at the Speed of Trust® >