At Work

Three Tips for Building Trust-Based Work Relationships

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In the many vocational interviews I have done over the years, I have heard numerous stories about difficult bosses and strained relationships at work.

Even in the organizations working for the highest causes, the tone of the corporate culture does not always match the lofty vision of their group.

According to Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal, this disconnect between an organization’s cultural values and the reality of what an employee experiences firsthand can lead to high turnover rates and job dissatisfaction, especially among millennials. She reports,

Some 7% of workers ages 24 to 36 say they dislike their employer’s culture so much that they intend to quit their jobs in the next two years, according to a 2019 survey by Deloitte of 13,416 millennial employees.

Likewise, you might have expected to get more out of work relationships.

You can have great relationships at work, allowing you to work closely with others and even have fun doing so. Part of wisely building work relationships is understanding what it means to develop nuanced and careful trust with people.

Here are three guidelines that can help us to set reliable expectations about relationships at work (and in life).

1. Love Is Never Safe Apart from Character

How can we risk loving our co-workers, friends, spouses, neighbors, and fellow citizens when we are unsure of whether we can fully trust them?

Sometimes, we are called to love without regard for our own safety, as when we obey Christ’s command to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). However, it is wise before entering into a relationship to consider the other person’s character.

We need to exercise godly caution when entering into business partnerships. I have heard many stories about people having been burned by trusting the wrong person.

One friend wanted to help another believer and helped set him up in a small business. Unfortunately, he neglected to do a background check, only later finding out that the person had a criminal record. Because of his partner’s dishonesty, he was saddled with a very large debt.

Building different levels of trust in work relationships should depend on discerning character.

2. Relationships Can Only Rise as High as the Character of Those Involved

Plato argued that you cannot be good friends with a bad person because sooner or later, your friend’s bad character will manifest itself. Your relationship can only rise as high as the lowest level of character between the two of you.

For instance, a friend got a large personal loan from a business associate, and gave his house as collateral. Despite assurances that he would never do so, the man took his house when he couldn’t keep up his payments.

Even though someone claims to be a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean they will be good to their word. But how can you know how much you can trust a business associate?

3. Look at Whomever the Person in Question Has Treated Most Poorly

To discern a person’s character, look at whomever that person has treated most poorly, and you will see the degree to which his or her character can descend.

It is not wise to trust the person beyond that level of their character. Given enough time and opportunity, they will likely do to you what they have done to others.

The book of Proverbs warns us to distinguish between people who pretend to be our friends and those who are the real thing.

Some friends play at friendship but a true friendship sticks closer than one’s nearest kin (Prov. 18:24).

For instance, it would not be wise to trust someone who is habitually a liar or has been violent in other relationships.

Can People (and Their Character) Change?

Does this mean people cannot change?

No. People can change their patterns of behavior (their character).

I have worked with former inmates working at Prison Fellowship and have found a number who have demonstrated exemplary behavior.

However, it would be unwise to trust much beyond the evidence that they are trustworthy. A person can be a true believer and yet have remaining weaknesses, making it difficult for them to move forward at work or in relationships outside of work.

To close on a positive note, one example of a former inmate who demonstrates character, and has had an immense impact, is Chuck Colson.

When he was at the White House, they called him Nixon’s “hatchet man.” He was said to be willing to run over his own grandmother. He went to prison as a result of the Watergate investigations.

Yet he became a believer and was a “burning and shining light” during his life after prison. He wrote many books, started Prison Fellowship, a ministry that still ministers to inmates worldwide, and was a consistent, reliable friend.

I got to know him very early in his faith journey at the Ligonier Valley Study Center with R.C. Sproul. In the many interactions I had with him over the years, he proved to be a generous and gracious friend. Even those who were initially skeptical of his conversion were later persuaded of its genuineness.

I’m sure you can think of further examples. However, we need to be wise and not naïve when we trust someone. Jesus said that we need to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16).

The key is that relationships at work can grow if there is a foundation of well-evaluated trust between people. Entering serious partnerships should be done based on reason to believe that the partner is trustworthy. Trust can be built a little at a time to prevent taking large risks on little trust.

On the other hand, there is no steadfast rule to determining trust. People can prove that they have changed, even after they have made a mistake. Relationships at work can grow if there is a level of trust that matches the issue at hand.

Editor’s note: Read more key life principles from Art Lindsley in Be Transformed: Essential Principles for Personal and Public Life.

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