How to Foster a Culture of Trust at Your Startup

February 3, 2021

Want to keep your top performers? 

Compensation is important. Accountability is important. Benefits, meaningful work, and a sense of community are all important.

But in my decade of building companies and teams, through watching other leaders’ strengths and weaknesses, and experiencing my fair share of both successes and failures, I have come to believe that one thing is more important than all the rest:

Trust.

Why?

Because when your people trust you, they will do their best work.

When they don’t, they will leave. Or they’ll complain internally, creating all sorts of cracks in the foundation you’ve built.

Building trust doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it, and you have to be consistent.

Here’s how to earn trust from your employees and foster a company-wide culture of trust.

1. Default to autonomy

You hired great people, so let them do their jobs. 

Micromanagement doesn’t help anyone. Employees hate it, and most leaders can’t do it while also thinking strategically to move the needle for the business.

If you tend to worry about a deliverable even after you’ve assigned it to someone else, put some bumpers in place to ensure the project progresses smoothly. The best bumpers come in the form of expectations and mile markers, rather than specific instructions; then it’s up to the employee to define the instructions for themselves.

Ask the employee to come up with a plan and timeline for the project that includes check-in points. Then you can keep tabs on progress, without looking over the employee’s shoulder. They’ll execute their plan, not yours, so they’ll have ownership over the project. Ownership helps the employee feel invested, which incentivizes them to do their best work.

Sometimes employees will misstep. Give them feedback, so they can do better next time. Then reflect on how to put better bumpers in place, and keep on moving.

2. Help them grow

Give them responsibilities they’ve never had before. Identify what they’re good at, and help them level up in those areas by taking on new projects.

Complement those new responsibilities with a discussion so they don’t feel overwhelmed or unprepared. Be honest about how you see something they’re good at, and you want to help them grow. And — this is key — make sure they know you’ll be there to answer questions and support them along the way.

Showing employees you trust them to take on bigger projects will help them trust themselves. It will help them gain confidence. And as a bonus, it will mean fewer things on your plate, so you can focus on growing the business.

Most employees want to learn and grow, especially those who choose to work in the startup space, where team members tend to wear a lot of hats and everything moves quickly. Not offering these opportunities is a sure sign of a leader who’s out of touch or doesn’t care as much as they say they do.

Oh, and offering opportunities your team members ask for isn’t enough. To truly help your employees grow, push yourself to see growth opportunities they don’t see for themselves.

For example, if a junior employee is good at something other employees would benefit from learning about, say, minimizing Slack distractions or organizing their calendar for maximum productivity, ask them to present a short workshop to their colleagues on that topic. The employee will think hard about how they do it so they’re prepared to teach others, which will result in them leaning even more into that skill. They’ll also gain confidence through the opportunity, and your staff will level up their skills, too.

Or if your employee shows leadership potential, put them in charge of an important project. They might surprise you and perform even better than you expected, giving you the green light to put more meaningful projects on their plate.  

Sometimes the best way to help an employee grow is to give feedback they don’t want to hear, or even to let them go from the organization altogether, so they can find a position elsewhere that’s a better fit. I had to learn this lesson the hard way. 

But not having these conversations — which, by the way, do get easier with practice — erodes trust over time. It erodes your trust in the employee, it erodes the employee’s trust in you, and it might erode other team members’ trust in both you and that employee. It can even erode your trust in yourself if it leads you to second-guess your decisions around this employee or people-managing generally. 

3. Ask questions

Instead of barking orders, ask your team members what they think the next step should look like. If there’s a challenge, ask them, “What’s the best way to tackle this?” Yes, even when it involves big decisions.

Asking questions shows you value your team members and their expertise. It shows you trust them to make good decisions.

If you’ve hired great people, they will suggest smart solutions. They might suggest the same solution you would have proposed, or come up with something better. This is a much bigger win than you telling them what to do. When someone comes up with their own solution, they throw themselves into it with more gusto than if you gave them the game plan. They will truly believe in it and want to carry it forward. 

Being trusted to make hard decisions also helps your employees grow and learn to trust themselves. And finally, it helps them trust you.

What if your team members suggest what you consider a poor solution? Simple: Ask more questions. Ask how they envision that scenario playing out. Ask about their reasoning. And listen to their answers to see whether they identify the flaws in their solution.

If they still don’t arrive at the decision you’re hoping for, it’s time to ask a question of yourself: Is this a hill worth dying on? How big are the consequences if my team member messes this up? Will they be able to fix those consequences? Sometimes the best way to learn is by failing; letting your employee do things their way might be an opportunity to help them grow. Or they might surprise you, in which case it’s a chance for you to grow.

In rare instances, you will have to overturn your employee’s decision. But push yourself to ask questions first so you can understand how they came to their conclusion — and how you can help them learn to suggest a better one next time. 

4. Don’t make them ask for permission

Create company policies that showcase trust. For example, don’t make your employees ask for permission every time they take on a freelance assignment. Instead, set clear guidelines and expectations (this post on hiring employees with side gigs will help), and check in periodically to see how their side gig is going.

Requiring employees to ask for permission for instances like this suggests you don’t trust your team. Plus, it’s usually a waste of your time, when you could use that brain power to move the business forward.

Unlimited sick days are another example. Slapping down an arbitrary, allotted number of sick days is how it’s always been done, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best approach for your company. 

Nobody wants to be sick, and nobody has control over how many days they can’t work because they’re sick. If you have the right people on your team, they will want to come to work most days. If there are a few days when they can’t or choose not to work, you don’t want them there anyways. If you work in an office, you don’t want sick people spreading sickness around the workplace, which can result in more lost productivity if others fall ill. And even if your team works remotely, it makes more sense in most instances to encourage a sick employee to recover so they can contribute in a meaningful way, rather than power through at half-speed and potentially delay a full recovery.

Not capping sick days is an opportunity to showcase trust in your employees. Trust them to know when they need a day off because they’re physically sick or mentally drained. That trust will come back to you in the form of respect and hard work. And if it doesn’t? If an employee takes advantage of your trust? Then they don’t belong in your organization. 

5. Make time for one-on-one conversations

This can be challenging as a leader; enjoying the company of one or two of your team members might not feel like the best use of your time when others need your attention, too. 

But making time to get to know your team members better sets the stage for everything else on this list. 

Meeting one-on-one or in a small group gives you a chance to talk about life outside of work and get to know your employees on a personal level. Ask about what excites them. Talk about their dreams. You might learn about what motivates a team member, which will set you up to work better with them. Or maybe you’ll recognize a synergy between something the company needs and a project your team member would enjoy working on.

Don’t expect the conversation to be one-sided; if you want to learn about your employee, you’ll have to open up about yourself, too. I’m not suggesting you share details you’re not comfortable with your colleagues knowing, but push yourself to be just a little bit vulnerable. Show them you have a life and interests outside work. Maybe talk about an element of your job that you find challenging, so long as you can do it in a way that doesn’t sound like complaining. These are all points of possible connection.

Connecting one-on-one outside of meetings isn’t easy when everyone’s remote; nobody wants to spend more time on Zoom. But what about a walking phone call to encourage a lighter conversation? Or, once we get back to seeing each other in person, treating your employee to coffee or lunch?

When you’re faced with getting your team on board with a project or decision that’s not immediately popular, you’ll look back on those lunches, coffees and walks, and the rapport you built through them, as time well spent.

6. Care

This is the only item on this list that you can’t learn through practice. If you fake it, people will catch on after a while. If you don’t truly care, you’ll likely struggle with the other items on this list, too.

There is a balance to strike here, because no matter how much you care about your employees, the business has to come first, and your decisions must reflect that hierarchy. If you don’t put the business first, you might not have a business, and all those people you care about could be out of a job.

But here’s the thing too many leaders get wrong: It’s not all or nothing. What’s good for the business can be good for employees. In most situations, there’s a win-win answer. And if you don’t see a win-win, there’s probably another alternative you haven’t thought about yet. Maybe there’s an opportunity to ask the employee to brainstorm a winning solution.

In those rare situations when what’s good for the business isn’t good for a particular employee, if you truly care and have shown that to be true, you will all eventually land on your feet.

Trust doesn’t just happen

Fostering a culture of trust isn’t something you can do overnight. It takes small actions, done repeatedly, over time.

Building trust with your team might not seem like the most important thing on your agenda, and it will probably never be the most urgent item on your list.

But it’s worth making the time to establish a company-wide culture of trust if you want to keep your best people. Support them in doing their best work, and you’ll grow your company along the way.

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