Are you noticing that you’re not getting assigned the interesting projects? Sitting on the outside of the inner circle on your team? Frustrated that no one seems to share important information with you? Maybe your colleagues or your manager have decided that you’re not trustworthy. What can you do?

“Trustworthy” is an annoyingly ambiguous concept, so someone telling you that you need to be more trustworthy can leave you wondering everything from whether they think you did something immoral or unethical all the way to whether they think you’re dodgy because you took the last donut from the box in the kitchen.

In this series, I’m tackling some of the most nebulous and underdefined criticisms that are leveled at people by their teammates in hopes that I can bring some clarity and some tangible ideas for what you can do to bolster your brand. For example, I shared what to do in the first post if someone tells you you’re not “strategic” enough. So check it out and let me know what other ill-defined criticisms have been leveled at you that you’d like me to demystify.

The Definition of Trust

If we’re going to talk about what makes you trustworthy (or not), we better start with the definition of trust. Trust is someone’s willingness to be vulnerable to you in a situation where they can’t control your behavior. So when someone suggests that they don’t trust you, they’re telling you that they feel vulnerable about what you might do and how that behavior will affect them.

It’s helpful to think about trust as two sides of a scale. On the one side are the acts you’ve committed that your coworkers have interpreted as having made them vulnerable. On the other side, you have your behaviors or characteristics that inspire their comfort in being vulnerable around you. How much someone trusts you is a function of both sides. Another way to think about it might be in an accounting sense with debits and credits or assets and liabilities. What assets and liabilities do you have in your trust account with your coworkers?

The Opposite of Trustworthy

Let’s start with the downside; the things you might have done in the past or be doing now could erode others’ trust in you—making them feel vulnerable around you. Now, if you immediately tried to recall times that you threw them under the bus, stabbed them in the back, or let a cat out of the bag, hang on a moment. Not all breaches of trust go straight to the level of low integrity. It’s worth considering some more innocuous possibilities first.

Did You Surprise Them?

Person staring into laptop looking confusedGiven that trust is about vulnerability, it’s therefore also about predictability. Some forms of “I don’t trust you” are just “I’m not sure what you’ll do.” Someone might feel nervous around you because you did something surprising or startling. Those could include:

  • Expressing a strong emotional reaction in response to something they said or did
  • Asking a question of them that they didn’t feel prepared to answer
  • Reacting to an issue differently from them (and different from what they expected)

You might think these transgressions are too minor to warrant someone calling you untrustworthy. Still, if you surprise someone, you rattle their sense of control and naturally make them less comfortable being vulnerable around you. So consider how you might make your behavior less idiosyncratic and invest more effort in helping people understand where you’re coming from.

Did You Flub a Job?

Another possibility is that you did something that has caused your colleagues to question your capability. Some forms of “I don’t trust you” are equivalent to “I’m not confident you’re capable.”  Someone might feel uncomfortable around you because you didn’t know how to do your job, or you delivered something of poor quality.

Consider these types of scenarios:

  • Sending a first draft without addressing spelling and grammatical errors
  • Being flustered, wordy, or inarticulate in a presentation to a customer
  • Missing a risk in a plan that would have left the business exposed

Again, sending a document with typos might seem silly and insufficient grounds to deem you untrustworthy but remember that different people feel vulnerable in different ways. If they can’t pass on your work without fear that it has defects, they can’t trust you. If gaps in their confidence might be the source of the trust issues, spend more time contracting on shared expectations and add in some checkpoints to bolster your credibility.

Did You Let Them Down?

There’s one last possibility to consider before we get to the “thew them under the bus” level of mistrust. That’s the scenario where you didn’t deliver something they were counting on you for. Some forms of “I don’t trust you” are code for “I can’t depend on you.” The person who thinks you’re not trustworthy might feel that you violated their expectations or left them in the lurch. (Fellow word nerds, check out the fun origin of the expression left in the lurch here).

Examples of that could be interpreted as being unreliable:

  • Saying you’ll send a draft by Thursday at 5 pm and then sending it Friday at 8 am
  • Booking over a contentious meeting so your teammate has to go without you
  • Reprioritizing your workload in a way that affects a colleague’s timelines

In each of these cases, your reasons for not delivering might be entirely justifiable, but that’s not what matters. What matters is whether the person now has a lingering doubt about whether you can be counted on to deliver. If you suspect that your colleague might be worried about relying on you, be very candid about expectations upfront and quick to raise a flag about any issues, so they have time to react.

Did Your Integrity Lapse?

Ok, we’ve exhausted the other possibilities, and now we’ve got to talk about the things you might have done that have left your colleagues questioning your integrity. I’m not going to list out all the genuinely egregious versions, such as acting unethically, sexually harassing them (or anyone), lying, or gossiping about them. You don’t need me to tell you that your trustworthiness will have bottomed out if they suspect you of these forms of impropriety. But what about some less obvious, less severe behaviors that might be undermining your colleagues’ sense that your integrity is worthy of trust?

Consider these possibilities:

  • Saying one thing to one audience and something different to another
  • Pretending things are fine when you’re obviously struggling
  • Taking credit for the work or ideas of others

Questioning your integrity doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing anything morally reprehensible. It might just mean that you’re playing politics, exaggerating your stories, or faking it ‘til you make it. And interestingly, it might mean that you’re making it clear that you’re not willing to be vulnerable, which is creating a similarly guarded mindset from your teammates. Fascinating isn’t it?!?

Earn Your Teammates’ Trust

Now that we’ve addressed a few different reasons why your colleagues might be feeling uneasy about your trustworthiness, we can focus on the positive side of the ledger and some steps you can take to get a few credits in your trust account.

Ask for Help

One teammate leaning over the shoulders of two others offering helpI know it seems counterintuitive to ask for help from someone who might not trust you. And I wouldn’t advise making it a gargantuan favor. But do try asking for help in one of these small ways. Asking for someone to help you gets you in the backdoor of trust (it’s a complicated cognitive dissonance-related phenomenon, but it’s often effective). Try one of these asks:

  • Ask for help on a narrow, specific part of a project where they have more expertise than you
  • Share a draft of something you’re working on and ask for feedback
  • Solicit support for a cause or volunteer effort you’re a part of

Spend More Time on Expectation-setting

One of your best options for earning trust is spending more time getting aligned about expectations from the beginning. Behaving differently from what someone expected will tax your trust account. Try these options:

  • Document what each person is committing to (who’s doing what with whom by when)
  • Plan in advance for what you’ll do if either of you has to reprioritize
  • Discuss guidelines for when and how you’ll escalate any issues

Be Vulnerable Yourself

Vulnerability from one person fosters vulnerability from another. If your colleagues are not trusting you, try being more open with them. Try one of these:

  • Share some of your backstories to help them better understand your idiosyncrasies
  • Admit something you’re struggling with or where you feel unsettled
  • Apologize for something and share your understanding of the impact your actions had

The Moral of the Story

In an era of deep fakes and fake news, being someone your colleagues can trust is essential. So for the next month, pay attention to how you’re making your teammates feel confident that they can be vulnerable around you. Do everything you can to make your behavior predictable and when it’s not, take the time to explain why and understand the ramifications on your teammates. Then go the extra mile to earn trust proactively. You’ll find that investments in trustworthiness are some of the most profound relationship builders that will stand you in good stead at work and help you form a friendship that lasts a lifetime.