Building Trust


“Do your employees trust your senior management?” This is the sentence that opens an article by Eric Krell in the June 2006 issue of HR Magazine, the publication of the US-based Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The article goes on to say that employee trust in senior management has a tremendous impact on a company’s business. Research indicates that employee trust in senior managers strongly influences employee turnover, productivity and profitability.

The article cites a 2005 worldwide survey that found that companies with high integrity — measured by employees’ assessment of senior management’s trustworthiness — generate financial returns twice as high as companies with low integrity levels. Unfortunately, worldwide research also indicates that senior management generally score low on trust.

Our local and regional research findings are no different. Over the past six years we have been measuring employee perceptions of management and organizational practices in local and regional organizations, including employees’ trust of senior management, and consistently, we have found it to be low.
Specifically, we have asked employees to respond to the statement: “I usually believe what senor management says”. Invariably, we have found less than half, and sometimes, less than a quarter of employees agreeing with this statement.

What does this say for employee trust of management? Clearly, there is a trust gap between most employees and their management in our organizations. Not only does this trust gap impact the business outcomes above, but it also affects management/employee relations, leaders’ ability to lead, the strategic direction of the organization and organizational change.

Where does this seemingly entrenched mistrust come from? In most cases it comes from a history of poor management/employee relations where the two sides perceive each other as adversaries and, therefore, view each other with great suspicion. Clearly trust will not flourish in such an environment. Once managers see employees as adversaries instead of as partners and associates in the business, the mistrust will continue.

According to the SHRM article referenced above, every interaction between a senior manager and the workforce represents a great opportunity to build or break trust. And the importance of that interaction increases if it is about employees’ welfare. This is perhaps why lack of trust of senior management tends to be positively correlated with employees’ perceptions of senior management’s interest in their satisfaction and wellbeing in our surveys. When trust is high, employees believe that senior management is interested in their satisfaction and welfare. When trust is low, the opposite is the case.

So how do we build trust in organizations? Organizational leaders can do several things to build trust with employees. Perhaps the most effective instrument for building trust is communication. Communication is the bridge for building trust in any kind of relationship – and the relationship between management and employees is no different. Getting out in front of employees and giving clear and consistent messages creates the right atmosphere for trust. We like to see our leaders up close and personal; and we relish the opportunity to interact with them – not only to hear what they have to say, but to respond to it, to ask them hard questions, to seek clarification, etc.
Consistency of words and deeds is another way of building trust. Corporate leaders need to make sure that their words and their actions are consistent. Consistency of words and deeds also includes keeping promises. There must be a match between what leaders say they will do and what they actually do. The days of the uneducated, unsophisticated, compliant employee are over. Many employees are as bright as or brighter than their bosses. So their bosses can no longer pull the wool over their eyes.

Related to being consistent and to communicating with employees is what I call “levelling” with them. Communication must not only be consistent, but it must be open, frank and honest. Organizational leaders need to inform employees about matters that will affect them as soon as the information is available. They need to take their employees into their confidence. They need to start off with the assumption that “they’re going to find out anyway, so it’s better that they find out from us.” When employees learn about organizational matters from the media or on the streets first, it undermines the trust and confidence they have in their managers. Disclosure brings trust, and corporate leaders must know how to use disclosure to build trust in their organizations.

Finally, corporate leaders can build trust by building team. Teambuilding is a powerful tool for building trust among a small group of people. This can be extended to an entire organization if employees and managers see themselves as a team, as partners and associates rather than as adversaries.

The major challenge about trust is that it is much easier to destroy than to build. One unthinking act can destroy trust. But it can take years to build or rebuild. Senior managers must constantly, consistently, consciously and conscientiously work on building trust in their organizations, especially as the lack of trust can have negative consequences for the business.


By Dr. Kwame R. Charles
Director, Quality Consultants Limited