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April 8, 2024

How to Build Trust in the Workplace: The Ultimate Guide for Today


There’s a great deal of discussion on trust in the workplace today – why it’s declining, how important it is, how to build it among your teams. And no wonder. For decades, leaders have often succeeded or failed largely based on their ability to establish trust.

That’s why the often-quoted line, attributed anonymously, still rings so true: “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”

Renowned investor Warren Buffet put it another way: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

And philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said this about trust: “I’m not upset that you lied to me. I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”

Working with leaders and teams at many different organizations across industries for more than 24 years, I’ve seen how trust opens doors to opportunities and can help leaders grow companies beyond their wildest expectations. I’ve seen leaders and teams work through trust issues and get to the other side stronger and better. I’ve also seen how business can slow or stop without trust.

Those who get it right champion humanity, empathy, and authenticity to build strong, trusting relationships, which improve employee engagement, retention, and business results.

This guide explores the environment of trust that we’re living and working in these days, and provides practical steps for leaders to build and strengthen trust inside their companies.

What is Trust in the Workplace?

Trust in the workplace is the feeling employees have that their leaders are “on their side,” treat them fairly and with respect, and accept occasional setbacks as a natural part of employee growth and development.

As a leader, being trustworthy is about:

  • Doing what you say you will do (being dependable and consistent)
  • Being approachable and friendly (people trust leaders they like)
  • Championing authenticity, empathy, and humanity
  • Showing support for your team members, even when they make mistakes (and admitting to your own)
  • Balancing the need for results with being considerate of others and their feelings
  • Working hard to win over people by being respectful of their ideas and perspectives
  • Ensuring that your words and actions match. Not just some of the time—all the time

Both sides of the trust coin impact a leader’s ability to inspire and motivate employees. When people trust you, they have confidence in your decisions. Even in uncertainty, they will be influenced by your leadership. That is because they expect you to do what you say you’ll do. 

Aligning your words and actions is a key pillar for building trust in the workplace and, ultimately, for an organization’s success. We often find employees say that what leaders say and do has the most impact on their perception of an organization. When there is a disconnect between a leader’s words and actions, employees are less likely to become engaged and committed to the organization.

Starting with the leader, it takes involvement at every level to create a deep bond of believability that motivates employees to put forth the effort needed to make their organization successful.

Why Is Trust in the Workplace So Important Today?

One of the biggest reasons leaders need to focus on trust today is because by many measures, trust is on a serious decline.

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer, which sampled 32,000 employees across 28 countries in 2024, found that trust has declined significantly in companies headquartered in the largest exporting nations, including the U.S. and China. In the U.S., trust in companies declined 9 points over the past decade, to 53%.

There were some positive signs for business in the Edelman research, with 79% of employees reporting trust in “my employer.” Employees are more likely to give their specific leaders more leeway. Yet trust in CEOs generally is much lower than that, at 51%. Trust in government leaders and in journalists is suffering as well.

The explosion of artificial intelligence and fear of an information war have been big contributors to declining trust, the Edelman research found. Fear of an information war (61%) jumped by six points from 2023, the biggest increase among societal fears surveyed. The report found an increase in the belief that business leaders (61%) are “purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false.”

While employees report higher levels of trust within their own organizations, there are signs that trend is fracturing, particularly with the rise of hybrid workers and a continuing trend of employees either leaving their jobs or reporting high levels of burnout. CEOs in one recent survey said their top priority and challenge in 2024 was retaining and engaging employees, based in part on high turnover trends.

In today’s business environment, without trust, it’s next to impossible to:

  • Engage and retain teams and top talent
  • Maintain a strong hybrid or remote workforce culture
  • Create a meaningful employee experience
  • Maintain or build your brand
  • Grow your business and get the results you want

With many employees leaving their jobs, the opportunity is ripe for leaders to seize the day, build even greater levels of trust in the organization, and retain their workforce.

The Financial and Engagement Payoffs from Building a Culture of Trust

Prominent research has also found a strong connection to companies with high trust levels and greater engagement, productivity, and financial results. The most trustworthy public companies significantly outperform their S&P 500 peers over time, according to Trust Across America, a corporate advocacy organization that helps institutions build trust through research on effective business practices.

Another study found that those working in high-trust companies were 76% more engaged at work and 50% more productive. “My team also found that those working in high-trust companies enjoyed their jobs 60% more, were 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose, and felt 66% closer to their colleagues,” said Paul M. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, who conducted the study and reported on it for the Harvard Business Review.

Research from Deloitte also reported positive financial impacts. According to their 2022 report, trusted companies outperform their peers by up to 400%. 

How to Build Trust in the Workplace

Here are 8 essential ways that leaders at all levels can build trust in the workplace:

1. Be ready to earn it

As the old saying goes, talk is cheap. Trust must be earned. It comes from a conscious effort to walk your talk, keep your promises, and align your behavior with your purpose and values. Today, employees are putting company leaders at all levels on notice that when it comes to earning trust, they better work harder.

Employees who truly trust their leaders will move mountains for them and will be more engaged in the business. That means your efforts to build trust are among the most important things you do as a leader.

2. Be honest and transparent

Even when it’s difficult, tell the truth and not just what you think people want to hear. Understand what employees need to know and communicate facts while being considerate of their effort, sensitive to their feelings, and understanding when inevitable mistakes are made.

Time and again, transparency has been identified as a key to opening the door to honest conversations, collaboration, and respect. It can help take some of the mystery and skepticism out of the workplace – those rumor mill conversations that often lead to doubt and mistrust.

To prevent rumors from spiraling, and to build a reliable sense of openness for employees, consistent and regular communication should be a priority. Communication is always best when it’s timely, relevant, and focused on what employees need to know and why, so they have context. However, being transparent doesn’t mean needing to have all the answers all the time. The most trustworthy leaders are not afraid of saying, “I don’t know, but let me find out and get back to you.”

We like to boil the transparency in communication process down to what we call “3 + 1”:

1. “Here’s what we know.”

2. “Here’s what we don’t know.”

3. “Here’s what we’re working on finding out.”

+1. Proactively bust myths. For example, you might say: “I want to address something I heard that’s not true,” and then share exactly what it is that you know and don’t know.

3. Listen more intently and deliberately

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is they tend to talk too much, thinking they need to constantly be the one in charge and directing what’s discussed.

The reality is that the more time you spend listening, the better you’ll do in learning important information that improves the business – and builds the trust of your team. Employees crave a leader who cares about what they have to say.

Along with becoming a better listener is allowing for moments of silence, as those moments inevitably invite in more conversation. Sometimes people view silence as empty space that needs to be filled, but when leaders learn to accept it – and work with it – they allow opportunities for others to speak and be heard. The result is often an unexpected and enlightening connection and a wealth of information.

Below are some other important strategies for becoming a more effective and trusted communicator through better listening:

  • Give employes more opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns
  • When a team member is speaking, suppress the inclination to think about what you are going to stay next
  • Don’t multitask; focus closely on the speaker
  • Ask questions to ensure you understand
  • Paraphrase what you’re hearing
  • Listen with an open mind, not for what you want to hear
  • Pay attention to what’s not being said
  • Do your best to stop “talking at” your employees – they want real, two-way conversations.

4. Consistently model trustworthy behavior

Consistently doing what you say you’ll do builds trust over time. Your team needs to see that you hold to your commitments to them personally and to the team overall.

They also want to see that you’re taking the time to regularly listen and work on employee relationships as a daily practice. The leader’s trustworthiness needs to shine through – not just once a quarter during a Town Hall, but in the overall approach to the business day-to-day.

For instance, if you say teamwork is a critical value for you personally and for the company, reinforce the point by regularly collaborating across teams and functions as a leader. Further, give credit when people do great collaborative work, setting the stage for a team-first mentality and an appreciative culture.

5. Embrace company-wide accountability practices

When you and other leaders acknowledge your mistakes as well as successes, employees see you as credible and will follow your lead. You can encourage honest dialogue and foster accountability by building in processes that become part of the culture, such as an evaluation of every project (positives, negatives, things to change) or a status report and next steps in each meeting agenda (tracking deadlines and milestones). 

This approach also supports a culture of continuous learning and helps team members see that you understand mistakes will be made, but want to support learning from them. In this way, you build trust because employees will be less fearful of making mistakes, which is important not only for trust but for innovation.

6. Extend empathy and humanity to employees

Leaders who pause and imagine how employees truly feel, and work to build genuine relationships naturally build more trust. Show employees that you hear them and validate their feelings. The payoff is an employee who knows you care; at the same time, you gather information that’s useful to motivating that employee.

Here are some tips for better connecting and showing empathy with employees:

  • Have regular check-ins on the calendar for individual or small group meetings. You and the employee/team can decide on the frequency, but ensuring that they occur more often helps to demonstrate you truly care and want to dialogue often. Allow time on the agenda not just for employees reporting on business outcomes; allow them to simply share how they’re doing overall and what help or support they need from you/management.
  • Find out and remember what your employees are passionate about. How would they spend a Saturday? At a museum? A concert? Do they golf? Do they have a favorite sports team? These natural conversations help to strengthen the personal relationship, which naturally builds trust.
  • Say thank you and share specific appreciative feedback often. Focus on the behaviors that you appreciate and were impressed by, helping employees see that you’re paying attention to their great work.

7. Solicit feedback and take action on suggestions

We’ve all been here before – we took time to complete an employee engagement survey and then never heard about the results or saw any changes from leadership. Leaders need to counter this trap by listening actively with a bias for action. After a company-wide survey, share what you’ve learned and what you hope to improve.

After asking your team members, “what’s on your mind” or “what could we be doing better?,” share what you might be able to act on and keep employees updated on progress. It’s not always practical to respond immediately, but make a point to respond in some way after the feedback is gathered. When you do so, make sure to share an appreciation for their thoughts and help employees understand why you are taking certain actions, or conversely, why you may not be able to implement their approach or make the change at the moment.

8. Make employee recognition a genuine part of the culture

Team recognition cannot be understated. From saying “thank you” for a job well done to taking the time to submit your employees for your organization’s recognition program, these efforts go a long way. Reinforce very specifically the behaviors you want to continue seeing.

Additionally, keep in mind that for remote employees, appreciation can be especially few and far between – and shouldn’t be. The little things mean a lot to an employee who has few interactions with their manager or colleagues. Go out of your way when you can to recognize employees who deliver what you need or respond quickly, especially for those who aren’t face-to-face with you. Highlight the successes of hard-to-reach workers in team meetings, via company communications, and the intranet.

Trust in the Workplace: Examples from Our Work

As you take action every day to foster greater trust among your teams, it’s important to consider the impact effective, strategic internal communication can have to build trust in leadership, drive business performance, and more.

Here are three ways we’ve partnered with clients to tackle communications challenges and ultimately improve trust:

1. Engaging employees to deliver on the brand

We partnered with a global hotel chain to transform its business and guest service strategies and needed employees to re-engage and deliver on the iconic brand’s new direction. Within nine months, we helped the company combat apathy and faltering employee engagement by overhauling how they approached internal communications. This had several important focuses, including:

  • Transforming leaders into effective communicators who could consistently articulate the new business strategy and help employees navigate transformation
  • Identifying and communicating mission-critical behavior changes for a geographically dispersed and multilingual employee base
  • Building an entirely new communications function from the ground up

Among many standout results, the organization saw a double-digit increase in employee engagement scores, including advances in trust in leadership and understanding of the company strategy.

2. Building an internal communication system from the ground up

The new leadership team of a non-profit hospital faced a daunting challenge: transform their business model to remain competitive and improve the quality of care, while simultaneously tackling employee morale and trust issues. We were brought in to serve as the organization’s internal communications team and build a first-ever communications function. Our work included:

  • Organizational and executive team messaging and communication plans to connect employees and physicians to organization strategy and priorities
  • Culture assessment and support to shape and articulate the desired culture
  • Improving and introducing new communication channels to reach employees and physicians
  • Operational excellence training and rallies
  • Issues communications

In one year, employee engagement scores increased in several key categories and leaders saw a marked improvement in the day-to-day culture of trust and support among the team.

3. Accelerating CEO impact through internal communications overhaul

The new CEO of a Fortune 50 healthcare company had to quickly earn employee trust as they came onboard. Yet six months into the role, there was still no communications plan or data to know how she was doing. There was a sense that employee confidence was waning, and the window of opportunity was closing for the CEO to become established.

In just 30 days, we researched employee perceptions about communications and the CEO. From there, we put a plan in place for CEO and enterprise internal communications. Within weeks, every member of the executive leadership team, starting with the CEO, had their own leadercommunicator™ platforms to increase individual and collective visibility and impact. Communications research continued annually to track progress against the baseline.

Through this plan to improve communication from the top, the organization saw double-digit gains in CEO communication scores, an 11% increase in employees’ saying they can speak positively on behalf of the company and many more positive reports from employees about the culture.

Make Building Trust a Top Priority

As a growing body of research underscores, building leader trust is the essential ingredient for a strong culture today. From what we’ve seen as thought leaders in employee communication, culture, and engagement, the research rings true. Given all the uncertainty, burnout, and high levels of disengagement, employees are searching for a sense of belonging and acceptance – a feeling that they matter.

How can organizations deliver on that tall order – and achieve higher engagement, better results, and less turnover along the way? It’s all about employee trust. Trust that their leader cares. Trust that the organization is doing important work. Trust that the leadership team and the team overall cares about individual employees and appreciates their contributions.

While trust takes real effort, it’s worth it. Employees who trust their leaders will move mountains for them and be more engaged in the business. In short, in today’s business environment, building trust might just be your most important responsibility as a leader.

Is there a disconnect between what you’re saying and your actions? How could you use these steps to build trust in the workplace with your employees?

—David Grossman 

Take a deeper dive into building trust in your organization and see how it leads to better business outcomes. Click below to download the—7 Critical Traits for Building Trust Inside Companies—eBook today!

Click to download the 7 Critical Traits for Building Trust Inside Companies ebook

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