Cultivating Employee Trust_(1)

Trust is often talked about as one of the most significant contributors to an organization’s business success. As Carolyn O’Hara wrote in her Harvard Business Review blog, “Proven Ways to Earn Your Employees’ Trust,” many organizations always think of it in terms of customers’ belief in their products and services, but trust within an organization is just as important, if not more.

Employees work hard when they trust you. It refers to the willingness of employees to be vulnerable to the actions of their organizations based on their positive expectations of their organizations’ intentions, policies, and performance. When employees trust their organizations, they perceive them as being fair, dependable and competent. As noted in Geoffrey James’ “9 Ways to Win Employee Trust,” a recent survey by The Forum Corporation indicated that if employees trust their employer, they can always go the extra mile, and if they don’t, they slack off. Trust has a profound impact on employee performance and business results.

Trust and Authentic Leadership

Employee trust is never easy to accomplish. According to, a Watson Wyatt survey with nearly 13,000 employees at all job levels and across various industries revealed that few than two out of five employees reported to trust their leaders and organizations. An appalling low trust with employees hurts corporate profitability in the long run. As Drew Hendricks reported in his “8 Simple Ways to Build Trust With Your Employees,” Interaction Associates surveyed 290 companies and 399 employees, and identified leadership behaviors as one bedrock of cultivating employee trust:

“Trust originates from the tone at the top…leaders walking the walk directly affects whether or not employees deepen their engagement and involvement.”

Organizations need to take time to nurture their employees and cultivate trust. Employees make inferences of trust in organizations based on their assessment of their supervisors’ or leaders’ trustworthiness through their interactions. Perception of trust relies considerably on the consistency between beliefs and actions. Authentic leaders need to understand their own merits and weaknesses, exhibit strong moral values and behavior integrity, and demonstrate genuine concerns for others, which cultivates a sense of pride among their followers and importantly trust in the leaders’ competence, goodwill, reliability, and integrity (i.e., essential dimension of trust). Such trust in leaders then extends to trust in organizations.

Trust and Transparent Communication

Communication is another widely recognized determinant. Be transparent. Transparent communication is characterized by involving stakeholders (e.g., employees) into decision-making, holding organizational accountable for their actions and words, and providing substantial, accurate, and useful information. When leaders engage in such transparent communication, their followers are likely to perceive the consistency between the leaders’ beliefs and actions.

This perception helps followers develop and assess expectations about the leaders’ and the organization’s ability, reliability, and integrity that are core dimensions of trust. Therefore, transparent communication ultimately fosters trust among employees toward their organizations. When organizations do not communicate in a truthful way, trust suffers. As David DeSteno says in his The Truth About Trust, trust is an “evolving thing that ebbs and flows.” Organizations can never follow through on their business goals when they cannot clearly communicate with employees about the goals or be forthcoming about the challenges they foresee in the pursuit of the goals.

Share as much as you can about the current health of your organizations. Regularly distribute information employees really care about, such as financial reports, performance metrics, and board meeting minutes. The more transparent you are, the more employee trust you earn.

Trust and Employee Engagement

Employee engagement indicates a positive psychological mindset, prompting employees to enjoy their work, stay committed to the work, and to become more efficient and involved in the work. This positive effective state in turn reflects employees’ confidence in their organization’s competence and dependability to accomplish the tasks. Furthermore, positive emotions or moods felt by employees are likely to stimulate more favorable attitudes towards organizations, such as increased trust.

Many industry studies, including Edelman’s Trust Barometer surveys, point to employee engagement as a performance cluster key to building employee trust, says William Powell in his “The Connection Between Employee Engagement And Trust.” As Christine Comaford, a Forbes Leadership contributor, discussed in her “How Great Leaders Build Trust And Increase Employee Engagement,” when employees perceive a positive affect toward their employers and feel empowered in the workplace, they offer much of their capability and potential in organizational life. As Christine concluded, to build engagement and trust, organizations are expected to ask for feedback and input, create shared vision and values, assess employees’ capabilities and capacity, establish measurable milestones, and implement tracking and check-ins.

My coauthor Dr. Rita Linjuan Men and I surveyed 391 employees from diverse industry sectors in the United States. The results of the study showed that authentic leadership, transparent communication, and employee engagement lead to employee trust toward their organizations. Authentic leadership, interestingly, is not directly associated with employee trust, but indirectly affects employee trust via the presence of a transparent organizational communication climate and employee engagement.

Some Takeaways for Employee Communication Managers to Cultivate Trust

Here are some research-based suggestions for organizational leaders and internal communication consultants to craft employee trust via authenticity, transparency, and engagement:

  • Understand the value of employee trust and include it as part of your core organizational values.
  • Construct an overall transparent organizational communication structure to produce an engaged workplace and craft employee trust, which is strongly associated with an organization’s and an industry’s resilient long-term development.
  • Integrate authentic leadership and transparent communication skills, strategies, and tactics in various training and mentoring workshops for managers at all levels.
  • Create common visions and make sure that employees understand their goals are aligned with your missions.
  • Share as much information as you can. Make them feel trusted, and then they trust you more.
  • Never give orders. Coach. Never ask for feedback but fail to act on it. Take blame for failures but share credit for successes. Listen, Listen, and Listen. And, the last but not the least, walk the talk.
  • Everyone knows the Do’s. Now take action.

Hua Jiang, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in Department of Public Relations, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Follow her on Twitter @HuaJiangSU.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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