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Building trust: It’s not a one-and-done deal

5 min read


What role does trust play in employee engagement? It’s a fairly large one, according to this Towers Watson research.

The study cites leaders’ ability to “earn the trust and confidence” of employees as one of the top drivers of employee engagement. There is also compelling evidence that trustworthiness has ties to ethics, which significantly ups the stakes. According to research conducted by The Ethics Resource Center (ERC), organizations with a clear “ethical culture” — which the ERC defines as a leadership group’s “commitment to open and honest communication, positive ethical role modeling, and accountability” — scored higher on employee engagement scores. These findings hold true for both senior management teams and direct supervisors.

If ethics, trust and employee engagement are inextricably linked, then all people with leadership roles must put trust-building on the front burner. Trust isn’t a “one and done” endeavor; it requires continual investment in the leader-employee relationship. The five actions below comprise an excellent start to making a daily effort towards building your leadership trustworthiness.

Get to know people’s minds and hearts. It’s not enough to simply understand your team members’ skill sets; you must also consider their motivations. Why do your team members come to work? You already surmise they work for the paycheck and possibly, the social stimulation. For many people, there’s yet another reason that drives them to excel at work. Cheryl Batchelder, CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, is fond of saying, “I must know you to grow you.” She encourages all members of the Popeyes team to create a personal mission statement and share it with their team leaders. As Batchelder writes in her book “Dare to Serve,” “If a leader doesn’t know [their team members’] talents, we cannot put people in a position for success.”

Keep promises. Nothing erodes trust in a leader faster than broken promises. When you keep your promises, you build a track record of positive consistency, not a trail of disappointments and letdowns. Think about the last time you broke a promise to someone at work — what were the conditions surrounding the breakdown? Did you give false hope as a way to mitigate a disappointment you knew was inevitable? Did your overenthusiastic nature get in the way and you bit off more than you could chew? When someone makes a request and you know the answer is “no,” then it’s better to let them down immediately (with the appropriate explanation) than to string them along, hoping something will change for the better.

Maintain confidences. This shows you have integrity, which according to the Edelman’s 2015 Trust Barometer research report is the top attribute in the ability to build trust. Keeping confidences goes way beyond the obvious examples of avoiding gossip or conveying privileged information contained in people’s employee file. When you decide what types of information to share regarding your team members, think about their personalities. For example, some people may be perfectly fine with you mentioning that they are about to become a parent; others may prefer to share that information more discreetly. Even sharing work-related information may be sensitive: some people love the limelight; others prefer to receive praise in private.

Ask, “How are you doing?” Then shut up and listen. When you truly listen to what people say, you will learn about them. Practice what I call “listening between the lines.” This means you listen not only to the content of the message (“I don’t think this project is going to succeed”) but also hear the underlying message (“and I’m worried that my job is on the line.”) And only ask “how are you doing?” when you really have the time to listen. You never know what’s going to come out of someone’s mouth and you do more harm than good by tossing off a rushed, “Oh, sorry to hear that … um, can we talk later? I’ve got a 2 o’clock in about five minutes.”

Back your people up. When advising leaders, I offer this counsel: support in public, coach in private. Your team needs to know you have their back. If they know they won’t be publicly castigated for an oversight, they won’t waste time playing “CYA” or the blame game. Instead, they’ll get on with the business of fixing their error. If you observe the mishandling of something, keep a lid on your frustration and give feedback (and, ideally, coaching as well) in private.

The unfortunate reality in human relationships is that it takes far less time to shatter trust than to build it. Leaders must assiduously check their trust-building behaviors to be sure that trust is continually growing amongst themselves and their team members. Not only does this make for strong teams, it improves employee engagement.

Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Follow Jennifer on LinkedIn and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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