Trust in the Workplace: 10 Steps to Build Trust with Employees

Posted by David Grossman on Mon, May 09, 2022

How to build trust in the workplace

Whoever said “trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair” was correct.

Working with leaders and teams at many different organizations across industries over the last 20+ years, I’ve seen how trust opens doors to opportunities and can help people and companies grow 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.

Let’s look at the environment of trust that we’re living and working in these days, and what leaders can do to build trust inside their companies.

Why is trust important in the workplace?

“My employer” was named by 77% of those surveyed worldwide as the most trusted institution in the recently released 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer. These findings from the annual report, now in its 22nd year, exceeded trust in four major public institutions – business (61%), NGOs (59%), government (52%), and media (50%).

While trust is on the rise for businesses, it is not a panacea for workplace issues, and considering the record-breaking turnover companies are experiencing today, it is not a guarantee of employee loyalty. Trust is needed more than ever as companies move past the pandemic and establish their new reality. In today’s business environment, without trust, it’s next to impossible to:

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

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

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

Defining Trust in the Workplace

To define trust, we also need to go beyond these practical kinds of considerations. A deeper version involves more of an emotional response. This includes feelings for employees such as knowing that leaders are on “their side,” they will be treated fairly and with respect and setbacks will be viewed favorably or at least not with particularly negative consequences.

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.

Actions matter most if you want to earn employees’ trust and engage them in 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.

How to Build Trust in the Workplace

Here are 10 ways that leaders at all levels can build trust in the workplace by aligning actions with words:

1. Recognize that building trust takes hard work

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. Building trust is worth the effort because once trust is lost, it can be very difficult to recover.

2. Be honest and supportive

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 and sensitive to their feelings. Showing support and understanding for your team members, even when mistakes are made. It goes a long way in building trust as a leader. 

3. Be transparent

Transparency opens the door for honest conversations, collaboration and respect. It can help take some of the mystery and skepticism out of the workplace that leads to feelings of mistrust. Consistent and regular communications should be a priority for trustworthy leaders, and the communication is 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.”

4. Be quiet sometimes

Actively listen and check for understanding by paraphrasing what you’ve heard. Use a variety of feedback tools to ensure everyone has the chance for their voice to be heard. You must engage in dialogue with employees, giving them the opportunity to ask questions, get answers, and voice concerns. Do your best to stop “talking at” your employees – they want real, two-way conversations.

5. Be consistent

Consistently doing what you say you’ll do builds trust over time – it can’t be something you do only occasionally. Keeping commitments must be the essence of your behavior, in all relationships, day after day and year after year. 

6. Model the behavior you seek

Nothing speaks more loudly about the culture of an organization than the leader’s behavior, which influences employee action and has the potential to drive their results. If you say teamwork is important, reinforce the point by collaborating across teams and functions. Give credit when people do great work and you’ll set the stage for an appreciative culture.

7. Build in accountability

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 parts 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). 

8. Extend empathy to others

Leaders who pause and imagine how employees truly feel build a lot of 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.

9. 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. From company-wide surveys to simply asking your team members, “what’s on your mind” or “what could we be doing better?” listen actively with a bias for action. Loop back with employees to share an appreciation for their thoughts and help them understand why you are taking certain actions, or conversely, not implementing their approach.

10. Demonstrate appreciation

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 and you’re on your way to a solid relationship built on mutual respect and trust.

Trust in the Workplace: Case Studies

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:

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 9 months, we helped the company combat apathy and faltering employee engagement by overhauling how they approached internal communications:

    • 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.

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.

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 and 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 more.

Conclusion

Trust levels may be on the rise for businesses, but that doesn’t mean that leaders can take their foot off the pedal when it comes to driving trust in their teams and organization at large. Trust takes a lot of hard work to earn and very little effort to lose. Once lost, trust can be nearly impossible to get back. Yet, 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!

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