The Word on Words: How What We Say Dictates Workplace Trust

An efficient and socially healthy workplace is something all managers would love to reside over. Wouldn’t you feel more at-ease knowing that everyone on your team had an understanding with one another which allowed them to focus more on productivity and less on disparity? Perhaps this is already the paradigm in your office or firm. Whether it is or not, it might help to acknowledge that actively cultivating a culture of trust is at the foundation of such a workplace utopia.

Our thoughts, feelings and actions converge to build trust, subsequently creating a company-wide culture of social fidelity. Plus, as we reveal more about ourselves to our colleagues, the Johari’s Window effect can strengthen that social bond. And finally, the more we learn about the brain, the more we understand how both verbal and non-verbal cues correlate to a perception of trustworthiness. For instance, it’s fascinating how both smile and physical touch can aid in portraying and conveying a sense of trust with the accuracy of words.

In digesting all of this, we should remember not to take the emphasis off the almighty spoken word. For, the power inherent in words is vast and irreplaceable. Let’s explore this power using a practical combination of science and common sense.

First, A Little Math

If trust is the foundation of workplace effectiveness, then words are the cement. To add some color to this analogy, consider David Maister’s Trust Equation:


Think of your Credibility as being revealed by the words you use, and Reliability as defined by your actions. By Intimacy, we’re talking about securing a safe, open environment which allows for unstrained communication. And by Self-Orientation, we’re referring to one’s individual motivation vs genuine concern for others. This equation was initially designed to dissect the level of trust in seller/client relationships. But when applied to the manager/report model, the importance of the spoken word in effective communication rises to the surface as critical to every component of trust.

Sticks & Stones & Words

It’s an academic given that 7% of our message comes in the form of words. But I stand to challenge this tiny percentage, since the word “words” has several dimensions that are entrenched in our formal and informal communications: You can give someone “your word” as a surrogate for your bond, you can choose your words carefully to create a vivid image, and you can use the spoken word for wholesome relationship building. The trick in these situations is to add color and “spice” to your facts without inserting fabrication or alternative truths. If this conversational “art” can’t be pulled off and your words come across as mystical or otherwise abstract, you can be stripped of your credibility.

When used artfully, however, words can carry great power. But just as with non-lingual communication, we should be careful not to abuse this power. The words you choose are subliminal signals implying among other things inclusiveness or exclusiveness. And when we cause someone to feel excluded, their good-old amygdala perks up, warning “danger!” Instinctively, the listener’s brain and body react to this subliminal alert, triggering emotional hurt and the erosion of trust.

And A Little Chemistry

Imagine this very real and common scenario: A direct report notices his manager is overwhelmed and asks, “Can I help with that?” The manager, preoccupied by her anxiety reflexively answers in an annoyed tone, “I’ll handle it myself” or perhaps “No, you can’t!” Now let’s examine this scenario with compassion for the manager: Her head is fogged by stress, and her instinct has overridden her sense of reason. She is convinced that it’ll take more time to explain what she needs done than to just do it herself, thereby shortchanging the report’s capacity to understand and facilitate the task (Is this starting to resonate with you?)

Now, switch perspectives and take a moment to FEEL how it registers in the report’s body to be devalued and excluded from his team. When it’s communicated that he’s not needed, he begins to subconsciously disengage. Over time, the slow drip of exclusion takes an irreparable emotional toll, damaging his productivity and his overall attitude in the workplace (The science here lies in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, a part of the brain involved with impulse control and reward anticipation.)

The Solution is a Win/Win

Cutting this adversity off at the pass takes a deep breath and a simple twist of words. What if the manager instead said “How would you handle it?” This slight tweaking in her response yields positive emotion and enhanced productivity for the employee, while helping engage the manager’s Prefrontal Cortex to clear that fog and embrace delegation. Another function of this inversion of words from telling to asking is its contribution to team-building. Often leaders tend to direct their reports like students, giving them assignments and asking them to report their results. By flipping the engagement from orders to questions, a progressive manager can empower her team to achieve better solutions. “What do you see as your next steps? “What else will you need to complete this project?” This feel of collaboration is inclusive. When folks have skin in the game, they proudly go the extra mile.

Check in again very soon as I continue this conversation, with a closer look at Reliability.