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How Do Leaders Build Trust At The Workplace?

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Here are four steps for leaders to build trust at the workplace. At the core of the four steps lies emotional intelligence. This means building trust at the workplace requires leaders to be emotionally intelligent.

Trust at the workplace

Let me start by asking the following questions:-
1.     What does trust at the workplace mean to you? 
2.     How does trust at the workplace help you succeed? 
3.     How do you build trust at the workplace?

I once worked with the new CEO of a regional conglomerate on a short term project to help with streamlining both their corporate and organisational structures. We had a few brainstorming sessions and once the CEO was comfortable and agreeable with his choice structures, I went ahead with implementation of the same.

The structures were solid and could have easily supported his vision for the conglomerate. I mentioned “could have” as something was lacking- TRUST.

Perhaps the new CEO was sceptical of the senior management team’s abilities. Perhaps he was playing it safe as he didn’t want to rock the boat. Or perhaps he was trying hard to impress the shareholders of the conglomerate. Whatever the case may be, he didn’t trust his people and I sensed that from the first day I started working alongside the CEO on the project. He was focused on getting things done (so driven that he was almost robot-like!) that he didn’t bother to establish rapport and build relationship with his senior management team, his communication was partial and on a need-to-know basis (causing confusion and disengagement) and on a few occasions he didn’t follow through with his words (fickle-minded perhaps?).

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” STEPHEN R. COVEY

I knew this was a recipe for low trust and it would negatively impact his efforts. As my scope was strictly on streamlining both their corporate and organisational structures and not executive/leadership development or coaching, I didn’t have the privilege to support him in those areas. I did drop a hint or two but he was probably too engrossed with getting things done to have noticed. On hindsight, I should have been more direct and proposed coaching to him as it would have improved the probability of success and achieving his vision.

Let's take a look at some studies

Study #1

According to a 2017 study in the US that compared people at low-trust companies and people at high-trust companies, researchers found that the latter reported:

  • 106% more energy at work

  • 76% more engagement

  • 74% less stress

  • 50% higher productivity

  • 40% less burnout

  • 29% more satisfaction in their lives

  • 13% fewer sick days

These figures provide valuable insights into the value of trust and how trust can make a significant and positive difference in performance in organisations.

Study #2

A study by the Harvard Business Review found that consistency, good judgment and positive relationships are key factors that drive trust in leadership. By analysing 87,000 360-degree leadership assessments, the study found that leaders who achieved ratings at or above the 60th percentile for the three factors achieved an overall 80th percentile trust score. When leaders displayed none of these qualities, a 20th percentile trust score was given.

The study also found that it is almost impossible for trust to develop and grow if no relationship has been established or if the relationship is soured by any means. This is evident that leaders need to be emotionally connected with the people in order to gain trust and support from them.

Study #3

A research conducted by the Great Place to Work Institute and Fortune on the 100 Best Companies to Work For found that trust within a company is positively correlated with financial performance. This means the higher the level of trust within a company (defined by the underlying trust between managers and employees), the better its financial performance. The research also concluded that the best workplaces beat “the average annualised returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three.”

It is clear from the studies above that trust is a key success factor for an organisation. The question now is what can leaders do to build trust at the workplace?

“People follow leaders by choice. Without trust, at best you get compliance.” JESSE LYN STONER

Step #1: Gain and solidify trust

According to Susan Ashford, professor at the University of Michigan, employees are looking for confidence, competence, and compassion from leaders. Employees want to know that their leader is confident and competent in leading, and compassionate about how people are feeling and what people are going through.

Step #2: Communicate honestly with employees

This involves sharing what the leaders do and don’t know. Be honest about things as employees will appreciate it. Leaders need to convene frequent dialogues and establish numerous touchpoints for open communication with employees. Rationale for key decisions should be clearly communicated to employees ahead of rollout to minimise their anxiety and disengagement.

Step #3: Focus on outcomes

Employees are not factory workers (unless they really are!) and as such leaders should focus on their work quality and the impact that work has on the organisation, and not on their hours of work.

Researches show that people who are trusted with autonomy about how they use their time are generally more productive. It’s clear that working longer hours doesn’t equate to working better or more productively. Studies suggest that there are dramatically diminishing returns to hours worked beyond the 50 hours per week mark, which means work accuracy and quality will drastically suffer.

Step #4: Walk the talk

Employees are looking for leaders’ words to be followed by action, i.e. walking the talk. Employees generally have high expectations of their workplace preferences being taken into account and coming to fruition, especially if leaders have expressed directly or indirectly the willingness to look into the matter.

At the core lies emotional intelligence

Looking at the four steps above, at the core lies emotional intelligence. This means building trust at the workplace requires leaders to be emotionally intelligent.

Emotionally intelligent leaders who are self-aware, authentic, resilient, empowering etc, are better able to gain trust from the people, who in turn will be inspired, healthy (emotionally, mentally and physically) and happy to help the organisation succeed by meeting and exceeding the expectations of the organisation’s stakeholders. Building trust at the workplace isn’t good to have, it is a must-have!


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