Leadership trust (and how to earn it)

Everything leaders need to earn (and keep) the trust of their employees.


Today, we’re talking about earning leadership trust. 

That’s right. We said earning.

You may have distant memories of moms, dads, grandmothers, favourite uncles or other wizened parental figures sternly telling you that “trust and respect are earned, not given.” 

Grandmama was right, not only with matters regarding your personal relationships but in regard to how you conduct yourself as an employer, too.

In fact, Grandmama might just have hit on the one thing that you should keep central to your internal communications policy at all times. 

Employees who feel they can trust their workplace feel engaged. Engaged employees stay in their jobs, perform better (driving up profitability by 21% according to some estimates) and save you thousands in lost productivity and hiring costs. 

Here’s why earning leadership trust is so important for frontline workforces, and how to build communication and trust in the workplace.

What is leadership trust and why is it so important?

Leadership trust is a difficult concept to pin down. It looks different in each organization

Rather than trying to find a dictionary definition, it might be easier to talk in terms of what a workplace looks like when you successfully build trust with your team. 

  • Your employees trust that their basic needs will be met competently (e.g prompt wage payment, leave granted and honored).
  • Your employees trust that any suggestions, feedback and complaints will be taken seriously, with no repercussions for whistleblowing or speaking up. 
  • Your employees feel able to grow in their roles without micromanagement and other hassle from their immediate superiors. 

How do you, as an employer or HR exec, know when this is the case? 

We’d hope that larger issues like regularly failing to pay on time, over/underpayment or repeated rota problems should throw up some major alarm bells further up the chain. 

Beyond the obvious, however. It’s important to look at: 

  • Performance: Are productivity levels increasing or decreasing? 
  • Feedback: Do you have a truly 360-degree picture of your workplace, and can you make process improvements based on this? 

These two points are exactly why you need to work hard to earn leadership trust in the workplace. 

Employees that trust the leadership that they work for offer genuine feedback to managers and are happier and more engaged in their jobs. 

Happier employees perform better and (crucially, at this particular moment in time) stay in their jobs longer.

There’s a huge frontline labor shortage at the moment, and if you don’t want your business to be adding to the 10 million unfilled vacancies in the US, employee retention is everything right now.  

And, honest feedback helps you improve your workplace even further, so that your employees become even more engaged. It all cycles upwards into more performance gains, more engagement and a happier workplace. 

How to build leadership trust in the workplace

To build trust in the workplace, your leadership team really needs to take center stage. Trust starts with commitment from higher-ups to run a workplace based on: 

  • Empathy: aim to inspire rather than dictate. Your employees should be there because they feel valued and seen as people, rather than simply a resource to be exploited. 
  • Mutual respect: your employees are not underlings, but skilled professionals whose work directly generates revenue. Listen to their thoughts and suggestions honestly, and openly — they might have hit on something you have missed. 
  • Courage: making mistakes is part of growing as an employee and an organization. Having the courage to own up to them and work to make things right increases leadership trust that they can experiment, learn and correct their own mistakes to gain experience. 

Are we being a little generic here? 

Possibly. You’ll likely find ‘empathy’, ‘mutual respect’ and ‘courage’ written into a thousand different company manifestos on a thousand different corporate websites.

Equally, there’s a huge difference between using these concepts as well-meaning company pillars and actually running an empathetic, respectful and courageous organization on the ground.

All too often, we’re so caught up in the idea of an empathetic workplace that we forget to apply those ideals to practical solutions that earn trust. 

Workplaces based on trust know that you build these values every day, in the actions of your leadership teams, senior managers and behaviour as an organization. 

Earning leadership trust is crucial to success

Everyday actions to earn leadership trust: a few ideas

These actions don’t always have to be grand statements or major projects. You could probably start doing a couple tomorrow, if you wanted — now’s as good a time to start as any!

Give employees more responsibility 

This could be locking up after a day’s trading, carrying out checks on equipment or making day-to-day decisions without having to check everything off with a manager. Give your employees the appropriate training and let their skills develop. 

Included in this: avoid micromanagement.

You hated having people constantly looking over your shoulder when you were a junior, and for good reason. It disenfranchises employees and piles up work for line managers that could be doing so much more than tracking their reports’ every move.

If your business tends towards this, stop it. Let your employees spread their wings. 

Keep employees in the loop

Transparency is king! It doesn’t matter whether you’re updating everyone on major strategic decisions or just explaining a couple of mild changes to how rotas work — your employees need to trust that you are being open and honest with them.  

One major action you can take here is using a mobile-friendly intranet for internal comms. It’s easy for frontline workers to feel excluded from the rest of the organization due to a lack of access to email.

Being able to update every single employee via their smartphone ensures everyone gets important updates and makes it easier to remain transparent. 

Admit your mistakes

Simple concept. Never easy to do (let’s be honest we could all be a little better at this). 

Your employees understand that you are human, and as such will really appreciate an apology when something has gone wrong. There’s no shame in admitting a fault, so long as you work to fix it. Admitting errors and communicating your plan for rectifying them creates a solid foundation for learning and growing together as an organization. 

Ask for feedback. Act on feedback

Feedback is a very powerful tool. If you ask employees for feedback (and act on it), levels of trust increase as employees see their suggestions used to make genuine improvements in the workplace. 

Tip: opt for regular, focused pulse surveys to gather employee feedback on specific issues. This makes it much easier to identify what you need to improve than annual, catch-all employee engagement surveys.

Tip 2: act on it and shout about it! Modesty might be a virtue, but when it comes to building trust in the workplace, you need to let the world know what you’re doing.

Let them know your action plan for putting improvements in place, particularly if they might take a while. No-one expects instant results, but they will expect transparency. 

Share personal stories

Organizations, as an entire entity, are hard to trust. People are much easier to trust. Having leaders who communicate on a personal level, with genuine stories rather than corporate jargon, taps into this. 

You only need to cast your mind back to 2020 to see how effective this can be. Sharing personal stories of dealing with a sudden and unprecedented pandemic helped organizations the world over trust each other in a global crisis.

Whilst workers of all seniority levels shared their stories and supported each other, having leaders that took the initiative to do so certainly helped establish the process. 

What about remote workplaces? 

We’ll let you in on a secret: all of these tips work as well for remote workplaces as they do for in-person ones. 

If anything, you need to ramp it up for remote employees, for whom it’s easy to feel left out or forgotten about. There is no such thing as overcommunication when it comes to remote workers — keep them updated as much as possible. 

You should also prioritize face-to-face time (whether in-person or over video conferencing software) wherever possible. Emails are fine, but they don’t replicate the engagement of talking and collaborating with real people. It’s much easier to trust someone when you know what they look like. 

How to rebuild leadership trust in the workplace when it has disappeared

If trust in the workplace has broken down completely, you’ll know about it. Your workplace will likely experience: 

  • Low employee retention rates and significant hiring costs
  • Noticeable drops in productivity and service levels
  • A lack of on-the-ground feedback and suggestions filtering up to senior management
  • Poor collaboration between teams and individuals

Good news: you can absolutely rebuild trust in poor work environments. 

Less good news: this will, understandably, take a little time. 

Probably slightly more unpalatable news: your first steps should be ones of humility and reconciliation.

Final thoughts: leadership trust (and how to earn it)

It’s tough being the representative of an organization that is so thoroughly distrusted by its employees, and you may be taking the flak for things that really weren’t your fault.

All we can say here is persevere, recognize why your employees feel the way they do and draw a line in the sand. 

This is really where you need to listen rather than talk.

Finely worded statements about Doing Better won’t ring true with your workforce unless you genuinely understand what has gone wrong. To do that, employees need to be able to talk without repercussions, and without a defensive barrage of protests.

Start small, and make gradual improvements. You will get there. 

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