Trust: A Core Pillar of a Psychologically Safe Workplace

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

Many engagement surveys ask employees to rank the degree to which they trust their leaders and organization, but most fail to ask whether they feel trusted by their manager and organization.

Trust is an important metric for organizations, but it is equally important that employees feel trusted in return. When they do, employees are more likely to share their concerns and opinions and ask for help when they need it. Trust also bolsters an employee’s ability to cope and work in uncertain times.

Conveying and building trust is a challenge for many organizations around the world. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer 20th study[1] revealed that on average no government, NGO or for-profit business is currently trusted, and 83% of employees worry about losing their jobs for a variety of reasons, including the economy, automation, immigration, and jobs moving to other countries.

To build employees’ confidence that they are trusted and valued, leaders need to be mindful of how words, actions, decisions, and organizational policies can make or break trust.

Take the example of remote work; Before the pandemic, many organizations wouldn’t consider having all or most of their employees work remotely - for many reasons. A significant one, which may not have been discussed openly, being lack of trust in employees to work as hard at home as they do in the office.

However, many employers have been surprised by how their operations have continued to run, and in some cases, even excel under the circumstances. Some organizations are reviewing lease agreements and are considering extending the option for employees to work remotely after COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted as a cost-saving measure.

Trust is an intangible currency that takes years to build but can be irretrievably lost in mere seconds. Here are some ways that you can demonstrate your trust in employees:

Let go of the need to micromanage - Micromanaging can seem compulsive and controlling to employees. When leaders micromanage, they often don’t listen to employees and only accept ideas and opinions that align with their own. Empowering employees to take responsibility and make decisions builds confidence and reinforces the message that they are trusted.

Be open to different points of view and opinions - When leaders respect differing points of view and provide opportunities for employees to demonstrate their skills and expertise in unconventional ways, employees are more likely to feel trusted and valued.

Give decision-making authority - Granting employees permission to make decisions in their day-to-day work can go a long way toward building accountability and trust. Show employees that they are supported to make decisions, and that they don’t need to fear the consequences of making a mistake. When mistakes are made, frame them as learning opportunities rather than defaulting to criticism.

Ask for informal feedback - Asking employees for feedback such as, “How do you think things are going? Do you have any tips for me?” demonstrates that you value their knowledge and insight. When employees trust that they can be respectfully candid, they are more likely to engage in this type of authentic exchange.

Be transparent and open in your communication - When employees see that you are willing to share both good and bad news, and you are honest about your own missteps and mistakes, they will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt in the future. It also sends a clear message that you trust them enough to be vulnerable, and to share information and news even when it may reflect poorly on the organization, or on yourself as a leader. Transparency isn’t always comfortable, but it can go a long way towards building a stronger, more trusting relationship with employees long term.


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