How can organizations build trust with their employees?

Employee trust is one of those intangible elements in the workplace that can have a far-reaching impact on everything from staff turnover and productivity to financial performance and more. It’s also something that has to be earned: and when lost, it can be very difficult to recover.


For a staggering 93% of employees, trust in their direct boss is essential to staying satisfied at work (Ultimate Software).

We now recognize that ruling through a culture of fear and tyranny is a recipe for disaster for organizations: to get the most out of our staff, trust and respect are paramount.

Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.

However, it’s also one of those elements that can be difficult to establish and nurture in today’s workplace.

For starters, it’s not something you can get with a quick fix: trust has to be earned over time. It’s often dependent upon the actions of individuals – in particular, our middle and senior management – rather than the collective organization as a whole.

In today’s digital workplaces, where face-to-face interaction is in rapid decline in favor of virtual communication, it’s increasingly difficult to develop. Once lost or damaged, employee trust is also very difficult to recover.

So, what can we – as managers, as an organization – do to nurture a culture of trust in the workplace?

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The value of employee trust

Today’s headlines are dominated by abuses of trust by the corporation: whether that’s broken contracts or data breaches, allegations of discrimination or harassment, or large-scale job losses followed by reports of six-figure bonus payouts for those in the C-suite.

45% of employees say lack of trust in leadership is the biggest issue impacting their work performance.

Tolero Solutions

Trust comes in many guises; however, it’s not always on a big scale. It could be a broken deadline commitment, lack of transparency on a project deliverable, a line manager who remotely micro-manages when you request to work from home. But regardless of the form it takes, the cost of that distrust can be significant.

Productivity slumps, along with the collaboration needed to solve problems, innovate, streamline processes. Employee engagement plummets, along with the quality of work.

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There are knock-on effects on customer experience, financial performance, profitability. Employee turnover and associated costs increase. And in today’s review-driven digital environment, that lack of trust is far more likely to reach the likes of Glassdoor or Indeed, damaging your organizations’ employer brand and reputation.

By contrast, employees who feel they have a culture of trust at work experience 74% less stress and feel 76% more engaged than those in ‘low-trust workplaces’ (Forbes). Trust correlates to higher revenue and 75% of staff believe trust affects their performance to a high degree (Know Your Team).

In short, earning and maintaining the trust of our employees should be a strategic priority for any organization.

How do we build – and maintain – trust with our employees?

#1. Be open and honest about changes impacting them

The fear of a negative reaction can motivate many managers into silence about change. We all know change management is a tricky subject, but attempting to gloss over the details or remaining mute is far more damaging in the long-term. Being transparent about (but understanding the impact of) change is crucial to earning employee trust.

#2. Don’t hide behind the corporate curtain

If information needs communicating to your employees that is likely to spark a negative response, don’t resort to hiding behind your corporation or flooding your comms with “business speak” jargon.

As human beings, we respond best to people. When there’s something to say, have it come from individuals – senior management, middle managers – rather than issuing a nameless top-down statement from your organization’s brand.

#3. Consult and include them in decision-making

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One of the strongest tools at the disposal of any manager looking to roll out change is consultation with, and inclusion of, their staff.

Involving your employees in shaping change not only increases their buy-in, support, and advocacy, it also instills trust in both the organization and management as staff feel their views and needs are considered.

#4. Share the big picture vision

Aligning staff behind your organizational mission and goals is crucial to both the employee and the customer experience.

It’s important to communicate to staff where you’re headed, and their role in getting you there. This has the dual benefit of instilling purpose and direction in employees and earning their trust by communicating your long-term strategy and vision.   

#5. Be a person first, not a title

While there can be a challenge for some in retaining the professional boundary in a manager-employee relationship, steering too far into the distant, impersonal or authoritarian ‘manager’ role can be detrimental to building trust.

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Allow for some degree of social or personable relationship with staff. This can be as simple as sharing what you got up to at the weekend, grabbing a coffee, or attending work social events. Most importantly, respond to and treat your staff as human beings, rather than deferring to your authority when they come to you.

#6. Own your mistakes

It follows from being a person first, a manager second: we are all human. We all make mistakes. The pressure and expectation we often place on ourselves to be superhuman as leaders is unfounded; in fact, one of the greatest ways to earn trust and respect is to own our shortcomings and failures.

If you fall short or make an error, don’t cover it up or pass the buck. Acknowledge it, learn from it, take steps to address it and communicate each of those steps to your staff. They’ll respect you all the more for it.

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Happiness: the key to business success

Studies show happy employees are twice as productive as their unhappy counterparts and stay in their jobs up to five times longer. Get our free tips on transforming your organization into a place staff LOVE to work.

#7. Accept that mistakes happen

Of course, you’re not going to be the only one who makes mistakes. It’s important your staff feel they can come to you and accept responsibility for their own mistakes, without the fear that they’ll face serious repercussions or even lose their job.

This doesn’t mean letting staff completely off the hook; performance issues, of course, need addressing. Instead, show understanding, encourage staff to learn from their mistakes and not fear failure: particularly in the pursuit of innovation and development.

#8. Keep your word

One of the greatest foundations of trust is integrity. If you are making promises or commitments, it’s important to say what you mean and do what you say. Failing to keep your word is a fast-track to break down employee trust in both you as an individual, and the organization as a whole.

If breaking your word is unavoidable, own it: apologize, explain to staff why and what has happened, and demonstrate humility.

#9.  Practice what you preach

When establishing a company culture and internal brand, many organizations will collectively establish values and expected behaviors of staff, often cascading those down from management.

It’s crucial that your leaders are aligning their own actions to their words and demonstrating those same behaviors and virtues. Don’t ask something of employees that you aren’t willing to do or live by yourself: model the behavior you seek. Accountability should be expected at all levels and not one rule for the collective, another for those in the C-Suite.

#10. Be willing to muck in

One of the most humanizing acts that can establish trust is a willingness to ‘get your hands dirty’ when needed.

Although manager and employee responsibilities are often very different, breaking down the ‘us and them’ mentality by chipping in – particularly during high stress or pressurized situations – demonstrates to staff that you’re all in this together and working to the same goals.

retaining staff
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Happiness: the key to business success

Studies show happy employees are twice as productive as their unhappy counterparts and stay in their jobs up to five times longer. Get our free tips on transforming your organization into a place staff LOVE to work.

#11. Listen – actively

We all like to think we listen to our staff, but how much are we really taking in?

When your employees have something to say – ensure you’re actively listening. That includes using tools such as mirroring or reflecting back, drilling down by asking additional questions, or even simply maintaining eye contact, closing your laptop lid, putting down your cellphone. Small things make a big difference and create the foundation of a trusting work relationship.

#12. Respect staff ideas and contributions

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Speaking out and putting forward ideas isn’t something that comes easily to all staff; particularly when they’re putting those to a senior figure. However, ideation and feedback from staff can also be hugely valuable.

Be open to staff contributions and show respect when they’re offered. Grass-roots staff may not have the same level of experience as their senior counterparts, but they have a unique understanding and insight from the frontlines. Dismiss or belittle that, and you’ll quickly push them away.

#13. Act on what they’ve said

OK, so listening is important – but if your staff are giving feedback, ideas, or airing their concerns, you’ll lose them in an instant if you simply nod, smile, and then forget about it.

Respond and take action. Or, if you can’t, show that you’ve taken on board what they’ve said and explain why you can’t do anything about it at this time. Again, they’ll respect and trust you more for your honesty.

#14. Offer your own trust

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.

– Ernest Hemingway

It’s a two-way street. How can you expect to earn the trust of your employees if you aren’t willing to give them the same courtesy?

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This can come under many different guises: not micro-managing when assigning tasks, for example, or trusting them to manage their own time and workload effectively. Give your staff the autonomy, freedom, and trust to perform their roles; delegate responsibility where possible and offer the space and opportunity to go above and beyond for those who want it.

#15. Recognize staff – in the moment

Employee recognition is a frequently underestimated act that has a significant impact on engagement, motivation, satisfaction, and productivity. It also directly correlates to how much staff trust their boss.

86% of employees who were recognized in the past month said they trusted their boss. This diminished by almost half to 48% when employees reported not being recognized. (Globoforce)

Don’t defer appreciation or recognition to the formal review. A time-lapse between deed and reward loses impact and can foster suspicion, distrust, even resentment. Make recognition a priority.

Employee trust is built on communication.

When we look at the variety of tips here to build, embed and improve trust in the workplace, it’s clear that overwhelmingly, they have one thing in common: communication.

Communication is one of those skills that we innately understand to be important, but often fail to keep front-of-mind in our day-to-day roles.

While organizations increasingly recognize the value of the employee experience and are placing internal communication on the management agenda, it’s not something we can build a strategy around and dictate from the top-down. It needs to be embedded at every level, between every manager and employee.

Only when we get the foundation of how we communicate right, can we expect to build a culture of trust within our organizations.

retaining staff
eBook

Happiness: the key to business success

Studies show happy employees are twice as productive as their unhappy counterparts and stay in their jobs up to five times longer. Get our free tips on transforming your organization into a place staff LOVE to work.