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Why Trust Matters at Work

A culture of fear hinders innovation and growth.


In an age of economic uncertainty and change, corporate leaders are seeking ways to be more agile and innovative. 

Yet in doing so, they frequently overlook one time-honored component of success—employee trust. That can be a costly mistake in terms of time, money and reputation, experts warn.

“When you don’t have trust, you can’t respond as quickly as you need to with the fast pace of change that we’re seeing in today’s market,” says Amanda Setili, a strategy consultant and author of Fearless Growth (Career Press, 2017).

Moreover, if employees don’t trust their leaders, they won’t operate efficiently. Staff members will be reluctant to make decisions, seeking approval for every little thing. They won’t be willing to go the extra mile if they’re unsure whether others will back them up. They’ll fear sharing bad news, so problems will grow instead of being promptly addressed. They’ll be less likely to offer ideas for new products or processes if they believe leaders won’t support them or will take credit for their ideas.

What Is Trust?

“Trust is when I feel I can count on you to do what you led me to expect you to do,” says Setili, president of Setili & Associates, an Atlanta-based strategy consulting company. 

“If we don’t believe that the other person is going to do what they led us to expect them to do, then we’re not going to put ourselves at risk,” she says. “And if we don’t put ourselves at risk, then we’re not going to be successful. And the company … is going to slowly erode and die.”

On the other hand, trustworthy leaders can bring great benefits to an organization, including greater employee engagement, innovation and productivity, says Andrea P. Howe, founder of The Get Real Project in Washington, D.C., and co-author of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2011). 

“You are much more likely to get innovation because with trust comes freedom,” Howe says. “You can get massive productivity gains. Simply put, things move faster, more easily.” 

Trust also enables people to have greater influence on others—which is important not just for leaders but for workers at all levels. “It’s the ability to be heard, to make a difference,” Howe says.

Numerous studies from the Great Place To Work Institute and elsewhere have found that companies with high-trust cultures have greater financial success than those that don’t. 

In fact, “a lack of trust is the biggest expense in organizations,” says David Horsager, chief executive officer of Trust Edge Leadership Institute in St. Paul, Minn. Every problem that leaders think they have—whether it’s a leadership issue, a sales issue, an engagement issue or some other issue—boils down to trust, he contends. 

Of 1,202 U.S. working-age adults surveyed last fall, 23 percent said they would offer more ideas and solutions, and 21 percent reported they would be willing to work longer hours, if they trusted their leaders, according to the institute’s 2018 Trust Outlook. One-third indicated that they would stay longer with an employer if its leaders kept their promises, and 28 percent said they would extend their tenure if transparency was practiced at all levels.

What Kills Trust

Unfortunately, trust frequently suffers when corporate executives get caught up in playing the short-term game, focused solely on revenues or pleasing the CEO rather than long-term values and commitments, experts say. 

When that happens, “people aren’t candid or honest in ways that are helpful to the leader,” says Gary S. Jones, SHRM-SCP, who recently retired as chief human resources officer for Grizzard Communications Group in Atlanta and now works as a consultant. They fear throwing out ideas that might not be popular, or they try to figure out how their suggestions will fit in with the leader’s real agenda. Such fear “leads to office politics rather than honest conversations about how employees can help the leader be a better leader and help the business move forward,” he notes.

Some common mistakes that destroy trust include:

• Avoiding conflict. When you discourage disagreement, open discussions can’t occur. Decisions don’t get made, or they are based on incomplete information. “The more you can almost relish conflict, encourage dialogue and debate, you’re going to build trust,” Setili says. Create a psychologically safe place for people to bring up the downsides of a plan. You may stir up conflict, but it’s far healthier in the end, she says.

• Breaking promises. When you tell your employees that you’re going to do something but don’t follow through, trust is lost. Why should employees believe you the next time?

• Focusing on compliance. “The world is changing so fast, the boss can’t anticipate everything. We’ve really got to give our employees more leeway,” Setili says. Instead of implementing layers of rigid rules, share the end goal and trust workers to use their common sense.

• Failing to communicate. You might be reluctant to share bad news, but it’s always better to tell the truth than to be silent. Employees appreciate honesty, she says. 

• Assuming trust. A trusting relationship doesn’t happen on its own. “You have to explicitly think about trust, work on trust, build trust and check to be sure that trust is there,” Setili says.

What Builds Trust

For leaders who want to develop their ability to inspire trust, Horsager’s research at Trust Edge Leadership Institute has identified eight key qualities to focus on:

• Clarity. “People trust the clear, and they distrust the ambiguous,” Horsager says. Give employees a clear vision of where you want to go and what role they will play.

• Compassion. Leaders who care for more than just themselves inspire trust. 

• Character. This means choosing to do what’s right rather than what’s easy.

• Competency. Stay fresh, relevant and capable. 

• Commitment. Stick with your employees in the face of adversity, and they’ll do the same for you.

• Connection. Cultivate strong relationships with workers. Ask questions. Find common ground.

• Contribution. In other words, produce results. 

• Consistency. What we do all the time shapes what others expect of us. “If you’re late all the time, I will trust you to be late,” Horsager says. “It’s the sameness in a person that builds a reputation. It’s the sameness in a company that builds a brand.”

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Building Employee Trust]

To build a culture of trust, lead by example, Howe says. “You’ve got to be the trust that you want to see in the organization.” Also point out when others exemplify the kind of behavior you do and don’t want to see. Share stories of your own failures and lessons learned. 

Finally, keep talking about building trust. At Grizzard, employees at all levels were involved in discussing questions on culture, Jones says, including “What does it mean to be able to voice an opinion or idea, even if you’re the only person in the room who thinks it might have value?”

Cultivating that environment is worth the investment, even if it’s not always easy. Taking shortcuts may work for a while. “But you’re never going to get the exceptional results that you can get by having trust,” Howe says.

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor at HR Magazine.