Do You Really Trust Your Employees? 

And do your employees actually trust you back?

Trust can make or break a workplace. It’s a foundational aspect of an organization’s culture and when it’s well established, it can lead employees to feel more engaged (76%), more productive (50%), more energetic (106%), and less stressed (74%). 

But when trust erodes (or wasn’t really there in the first place), things can go downhill fast. In low-trust work environments, leaders and managers are more likely to micromanage employees, withhold critical information, and engage in favoritism. This can create information silos and disconnects between an organization’s espoused values and the behaviors that are actually reinforced. In turn, this can thwart employee engagement, productivity, and ultimately an organization’s ability to innovate, as well as attract and retain the best talent.   

Jesse Lyn Stoner, author of Full Steam Ahead sums up workplace trust in this way: “People follow leaders by choice. Without trust, at best you get compliance.” 

So how did we get here? 

An Evolving Social Contract 

The social contract between employers and employees — in which employers would provide job security, comprehensive healthcare benefits, and a pension in exchange for employee tenure and loyalty — has loosened over the past 40 years as wages across industries have flattened and many companies have streamlined benefits packages. While many professions no longer carry the same level of job security as in the past, today’s workforce seeks to do purposeful work for companies that align with their personal values.

More and more organizations are seeing the correlation between purpose, growth, and talent acquisition. A 2019 Gallup article cites Unilever as an example of an organization zeroed in on sustainability values. The organization’s sustainable living brands have outperformed the average growth rate for four years and has also been deemed an “employer of choice” among recent graduates in 44 out of 52 of Unilever’s recruiting markets.

However, for many organizations, there’s still room for improvement. Gallup also found that only 27% of employees are aware of and strongly aligned with their organization’s values.

“Ultimately people want to make a difference. You wake up each morning and ask, ‘Am I going to do something that’s useful or important in some way today?’” says founder and chief possibility officer at Ah Ha!, Susannah Childers. “If we don’t feel that our time spent working is meaningful, then we tend to leave an organization and go elsewhere.” 

Greater Flexibility With More Surveillance 

Technology advancement, remote-work options, and increased flexibility in how and when we work also factor into how trust is built in the modern workplace. For some office employees, all they need is a laptop and a reliable internet connection to complete their daily work remotely — a lesson many of us learned in 2020. While remote work has been on the rise before the pandemic, with nearly 5 million employees working remotely in 2018, not all organizations are ready to embrace remote work completely. 

There are a few theories behind why some organizations still aren’t ready to embrace remote work. According to the Society for Human Resources Managers (SHRM): Companies allow employees to work remote without the training and resources to do so productively. Managers might not be trained to oversee and monitor remote workers and find it easier to manage employees on-site. Some managers may feel they don’t have control or don’t trust their employees and are not comfortable with employees working remotely. Employers may find that remote workers aren’t as productive as when they are in the office. 

The last two examples directly deal with how an organization trusts its employees when they are not in the office. As a result, some employers that are less trusting of working remotely may actively keep tabs on their workforce’s productivity through remote monitoring technologies. 

Take technology that tracks keystrokes and idle times, for example. This seems like it would help maintain productivity, but depending on how its use is communicated to employees, your people can feel that they’re being treated with suspicion. 

As many organizations have abruptly shifted to working remotely this year, many of these issues may still be in the process of being resolved, especially if the organization didn’t fully embrace remote working options before the pandemic. On the other hand, organizations that do trust their remote workforce to be productive are thriving right now.

Disconnected Values Fuel Trust Issues 

Trust issues in the workplace can also stem from leadership and management levels within an organization. Sometimes the disconnect that disrupts trust stems from differing motivators that drive employers and employees. The factors that drive leadership are the big-picture, long-term issues such as financial performance, productivity, and brand reputation. Employees, meanwhile, are more concerned with day-to-day experiences around the work environment, meaningful work, and opportunities to advance. 

Leaders and managers are aware that purposeful work and career advancement are top motivators for employees, according to ADP’s Evolution of Work 2.0. However, employees may be “wary about the meaningfulness and fairness of these initiatives,” the ADP report states. If an organization is experiencing this disconnect and it isn’t further explored, it can lead to decreased trust and increased turnover. 

One of the ways to align leadership’s values with employees’ values is through investing in learning and advancement initiatives that allow people to build purposeful careers at all levels within an organization. By tapping into employees’ interests in advancement, it furthers the value they create for an organization and gives the company a strong reputation for cultivating talent. 

“There are companies that are known for hiring the best and training them,” says Childers. “There’s not enough room for everyone to move up the ladder, so some people will go on to other organizations. But when a company is known to have such strong emphasis on their learning and training program, they attract the best people.”   

Another key component of building trust in the workplace, especially in a culture where innovation can thrive, is leadership that is willing to sponsor employees’ ideas and having dialogues within the larger organization.

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It’s important for leaders to have their employees’ backs and stand up for what their teams believe in. This helps to align the vision that the leaders have for the organization with employees’ actions. If there is some dissension, it’s a great opportunity to seek clarity and build a deeper understanding with each other. This can help facilitate trust in the process. It also helps leadership understand where employees are in the grand scheme of things.

Change in the workplace can also create trust issues for many employees. Up to one-third of workers feel cynical about change and question leadership’s motives, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 Work and Well-Being Survey. When a company is in the process of organizational change, 34% of employees state they don’t trust their employer, and 46% intend to seek employment opportunities elsewhere, according to the APA study.

Change — especially in the business world — is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to bust morale and trust within an organization. “To build trust and engagement, employers need to focus on building a psychologically healthy workplace where employees are actively involved in shaping the future and confident in their ability to succeed,” says David W. Ballard, head of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. 

Sometimes it’s about letting go of the command-and-control style of leadership in certain situations and taking more of a facilitative role as a leader to show employees that their voices are valued and that it’s safe to share their perspectives. 

Building Bonds That Lead to Trust 

Managers play a significant role in how employees experience the workplace. They can account for up to 70% of the variance in employee engagement within organizations, according to Gallup’s State of the American Manager. Managers are the frontline of trust for most employees, who may hinge their overall experience upon their day-to-day interactions with them. Actions that lead to distrust between managers and employees can include lack of support, inconsistencies in communication, and disconnects between company values and a manager’s actions. Notably, when this happens, it’s not necessarily because managers are operating with malintent; they very well could be overworked or trying to navigate a highly political work environment without ending up on the chopping block. 

If employees see that they are working in a low-trust environment, they may become more protective of their own interests or become disengaged. They may be more inclined to withhold information from colleagues, question the organization’s goals, disengage from their work, or actively look for opportunities elsewhere. 

Employees need to feel a sense of safety and belonging. Building a high-trust work environment needs to take place within all levels of an organization, but management often sets the standard by living by the organization’s values and maintaining accountability. 

Ultimately, an organization should drive what people expect of each other and how we want people to behave within the company. Leaders can start by holding other leaders and managers accountable to uphold company values, be it by demonstrating teamwork through collaboration or maintaining work-life balance.

Fostering Trust Starts With Each of Us  

While building (or repairing) trust in the workplace is a team effort, it’s a process that can start with each of us and how we choose to interact with each other. Regardless of the type of environment we work in, we can all build stronger connections with colleagues by actively listening during conversations, taking the time to get to know one another on a personal level and recognizing each other for the contributions we make.

Trust is built up over time. The more interactions that people have, the more they walk away with positive feelings, whether it’s from good intent, or because the person felt heard and respected. 

Working toward maintaining, establishing (or re-establishing) trust in the workplace is a journey that all organizations need to facilitate. Progress takes time and will be an interactive process that requires each of us to be proactive participants. But when leaders, managers, and employees work together to create an environment where trust can flourish, each one of us will benefit both professionally and personally. 

As senior vice president of customer experience for Inspirus, Theresa Harkins uses her deep experience to create long-lasting impact and success. She’s an influential pioneer who has led award-winning Fortune 500 recognition organizations and was one of the chief drivers behind the certification of recognition professionals.

Theresa has a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), Certified Compensational Professional (CCP) and is the co-creator of the Certified Recognition Professional (CRP) designation. 

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