Trust in the Workplace

Establishing trust in working relationships is key to professional advancement. However, as revealed in Catalyst’s groundbreaking study, establishing trust in the workplace can be particularly challenging for women of color.

One of the primary barriers, especially in workplaces characterized by negative stereotyping and greater scrutiny of so-called outsiders, is feeling vulnerable when revealing personal details. Women of color fear that those details might be used to undermine their professional image or credibility. Such concerns can lead to guardedness, as exemplified by a story shared by one woman of color, whose male colleague commented on the car trouble she was having:

He was like, ”You’re always having problems with your car.” He said it as if it were a judgment of me. So I said to myself, ”Remember, you should never share your personal business.”

Rather than connecting with her colleagues, this woman learned never to drop her guard at work. While this reserve protected her emotionally, it also likely interfered with her ability to develop positive professional relationships.

Our study specifically examined relationships between white male managers and women of color supervisees, with an emphasis on the development of “disclosure” trust within these pairs. This type of trust develops when supervisees communicate sensitive or personal information to a manager. It involves some risk on the part of the supervisee, including a willingness to admit to shortcomings and share honest feelings.

Cultivating this kind of trust can make it easier to find solutions to problems at work. It can also increase individual effectiveness and organizational productivity. Unfortunately, our study found that women of color had significantly lower levels of trust in their white male managers than did white women. We also found that the more comfortable women of color were with confiding in their managers, the more likely they were to be satisfied with their career advancement and remain with their organizations.

Catalyst encourages women of color to share something personal but related to the workplace—for example, their leadership role within a community organization—even if, initially, it feels uncomfortable to do so. Disclosure trust is a two-way street that grows and deepens over time. The more a woman of color discloses, the more her manager will disclose—ultimately leading to greater levels of comfort on both sides.

Not every manager is going to be open to forming a trust-based relationship with a woman of color supervisee. In that case, women of color still need to learn to navigate the corporate culture. As one savvy senior woman of color told us:

I’ve had (people in my office) who have said, “I ain’t gonna do that. I’m good at what I do, but I am not going to sit down and have a cup of coffee with them.” And I say, “Create your corporate space. Give them the image that you want them to have.

Women of color who are climbing the corporate ladder aren’t the only ones who would be wise to heed these words. Managers, too, should be mindful of why opening up at work is more challenging for women of color.

After all, it takes two to form a relationship built on trust.

Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s vice president and women of color practitioner, Global Member Services.


Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit membership organization expanding opportunities for women and business. With offices in the United States, Canada, Europe, and India, and more than 600 members, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research and advice about women at work. annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women’s advancement with the Catalyst Award.

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