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The Five Things That Trustworthy Bosses Have Mastered

Surveys show that more than half of employees don’t trust their companies. Here are some ways employers can change that.

The Five Things That Trustworthy Bosses Have Mastered
[Photo: LucaZola/iStock]

Companies today have trust issues.

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Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer, which measures trust in institutions around the globe, found its largest-ever drop in trust across government, business, media, and NGOs. Most of the people surveyed around the world worried about losing their jobs to various factors such as lack of training or skills (60%),  jobs moving to cheaper markets (55%), and automation (54%).

Worse, employees don’t trust the companies they work for. In a 2017 global survey of professionals by EY, less than half of global respondents have a “great deal of trust” in their current employers (46%), bosses, or colleagues (both 49%). When employees lack trust, they’re less engaged and more likely to leave–both big problems for companies trying to innovate, retain talent, and grow, says David Grossman, founder of The Grossman Group, a Chicago-based leadership and internal communication firm.

So, what can companies do to build more trust among their employee base? First, understand where trust is slipping, Grossman says. The EY research found that the top five factors leading to respondents’ lack of trust in their employers were:

  1. Unfair employee compensation
  2. Unequal opportunity for pay and promotion
  3. Lack of leadership
  4. High employee turnover
  5. A work environment not conducive to collaboration

Addressing each of those issues is a daunting task on its own. However, there are some overarching actions employers can take to improve trust overall and help transform the company’s culture into a place where trust thrives.

Take Inventory

Like most significant change efforts, the first step is to take a skills and resources inventory, Grossman says. As a leader, you need “an ability to look at [yourself] and say, ‘How am I doing when it comes to giving others trust? Do I approach relationships, teams, and others with this idea that I am going to give you trust?’ In giving you trust chances are what I will get in return will be trust as well,” he says.

Are you able to build connections with your workers, communicate well with them, and help them navigate the organizational system to help ensure their own well-being? Honestly assess how trustworthy you are as a leader to see where you may need to build your own skills.

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It’s also a good idea to take a look at the organization and its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to trustworthiness. The EY research found several leading attributes that were “very important” to a majority of global respondents in determining the level of trust to place in their employer, including:

  • Delivers on promises (67%)
  • Provides job security (64%)
  • Provides fair compensation and good benefits (63%)
  • Communicates openly/transparently (59%)

Understanding how well your organization fosters trust will also be important to both making improvements and understanding the obstacles to trust that you face as a leader.

Explain What You Can

Ideally, an environment of trust helps employees remain engaged and feel safe in contributing more. However, if they feel that they’re sharing ideas and improvements that go into a void, they’re not going to continue doing so for long. So, it’s important for leaders to provide feedback and explanations whenever possible, says Benjamin F. “Major Ben” Brooks, retired Pennsylvania State Police major.

So, for example, if you receive feedback about an improvement or new initiative, explain why and try to come up with alternatives or a plan to make it happen in the future. “Whenever you can explain something to people, they may not agree, but at least you can acknowledge that,” Brooks says. If people don’t feel heard, then their needs are likely not being met. That leads to a breakdown in trust, he says.

Make Systems And Processes Fair

Another barrier to trust is when employees feel like they have no input or control in how the company operates. When company policies and even an employee’s job security feel subject to arbitrary forces, it’s difficult to inspire trust, says licensed social worker Laura McLeod, founder of From the Inside Out Project, New York City, which facilitates communication between hourly workers and management.

Establish and communicate clear expectations for work performance, as well as processes for time off, sick leave, and other areas that may be necessary for work/life balance. Make the process and requirements for advancement and raises clear, she adds. Grey areas erode trust and hinder performance.

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Within these processes, consistency is important, as well, Grossman adds. Your team needs to feel as if the rules apply to everyone and are applied uniformly. Feeling that some benefit more than others is a large barrier to trust.

Focus On Relationships

The best bosses help their employees grow, develop and make a positive contribution, Grossman says. People are going to trust you when they feel you have their best interest at heart and when you invest in them. “It’s a focus on relationships,” he says. So, look for ways to help employees gain training that will help their advancement, learn new skills and develop in their roles, even if that means risking losing them.

Brooks says that another aspect to relationship-building is to act with empathy. Examine the role from your employees’ point of view and truly work on understanding their feelings and challenges. “If you don’t have empathy, you’ll never, as a leader, be able to make an emotional connection with the individuals you’re trying to impact or influence,” he says.

Work On Inclusion

People bring their best selves to the workplace when they feel it’s safe to do so, Brooks says. Work on making your company culture inclusive, where different viewpoints, experiences and strengths are valued. When people feel it’s safe to speak up or have different views without repercussions, companies benefit in a variety of ways, including increased trust.

The most effective leaders today are acting in respectful and authentic ways, Grossman says. “They lead by focusing on others. They are humble. They have grace under pressure. They have quiet courage. They’re bringing more humanity. They’re getting rid of BS in the workplace,” he says. Instead, they see interactions with each employee as an opportunity to build trust and, in doing so, strengthen relationships and engagement.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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