The newspapers are riddled with stories of deceit and deception
from leaders in both the commercial and government sectors.
Leaders everywhere face the challenge of disenfranchised and
disengaged employees, who, in many instances, attribute these
in leadership to anyone in a leadership role. More than ever,
all levels of the organization must recognize the perceptions
have of the state of leadership in todays organizations and, if
want to lead effectively, rebuild trust in the ranks of employees.
employees trust their leaders, they engage in the work and the
buy into organizational changes and transitions, and operate
from an inclusive, collaborative perspective.
In this article we explore
trust in todays organizations,
distrust in the workplace,
the concept of rebuilding trust, and
how to build trust.
Although this article paints a dismal picture of trust and distrust
in organizations and illustrates the implications, it also offers
ways to build (or begin to rebuild) trust to foster a more
engaged workforce. Trust is the foundation on which
employee engagement is built.
Trust in Todays Organizations
Trust in todays organizations, particularly in the
public sector, is at an all-time low, and the reasons are
many and varied. We examine three perspectives, including
how command-and-control leadership styles
are perpetuating distrust among rank-and-file employees,
the reasons for distrust in work groups, and how
promotion processes have not positioned individuals to
succeed as leaders.
Command-and-control leadership has been traditionally
viewed as the way leaders could get the best
performance from their employees. Over the past few
decades, this notion has been put aside, as more peopleoriented
leadership practices have achieved results and
provided countless other benefits. Concepts like empowerment,
emotional intelligence, collaboration, and
engaging leadership have been slowly and steadily moving
into the practice of leadership. However, a number
of leaders, still operating from this outdated paradigm,
have not evolved with the needs of organizations and
workforce. When power rather than empowerment
is the cultural norm, people disengage. Too many leaders
still operate with this command-and-control mentality,
and in doing so, have created cultures of fear, resistance,
disengagement, and distrust.
On the one hand, the public sector has improved the
transparency of the performance of organizations and
leaders through score cards and surveys. However, transparency
has not realized its full potential, and the push
for transparency has led to increased self-protection.
Some leaders fear that if the true state of their organizations
were known, they would be viewed as ineffective.
Therefore, rather than transparently surfacing and
discussing organizational issues and seeking a coalition
of those committed to tackling them and changing the
status quo, leaders protect their legacy by withholding
information, filtering information to the public, and silencing
critics by marginalizing and politicizing others
perspectives. The true state of the organization may be
unknown to the outside world, but employees are acutely
aware that issues and challenges are buried and hidden.
In the absence of honesty and transparency, the
workforce has come to expect their leaders to engage
in this self-protection and not tackle the issues head on.
Whether it stems from the inability to or disinterest in
tackling tough issues, fear of labor union reprisal, or
simply avoidance, not facing the real issues fuels a pervasive
distrust in organizational leadership. Rather than
deal with poor performance, leaders hide or move the
The reason that this hide-or-move mentality fuels
distrust has to do with employees expectations that
do not shy away from tough issues,
do not allow poor performance to continue,
break down barriers that threaten success, and
provide a vision where all employees can
Rather than inspire and empower individuals to perform
more effectively while eliminating poor performers,
many leaders have acquiesced. They have encouraged
control and compliance rather than engagement
and adequacy rather than excellence. This incongruence
between what is expected of leaders and what has actually
happened has fostered a deep-rooted distrust in
A group of people sharing an office distinctly differs
from a team of people collectively working together toward
a shared goal. Teams share the belief and trust that
they are bound together by more than the walls of the
office. Fostering teamwork among individuals requires
more than technical expertise; however, many people
have been promoted into managerial and leadership
roles on the basis of technical expertise and length of
service rather than their ability to form a cohesive team
and shared vision among their employees.
Technical competence increases employees trust in
their managers abilities, but it does little to help build
cohesive, collaborative, mission-focused teams. The
practice of promoting people on technical merits only
loses sight of the entirely different skill set that effective
management and leadership requires. This promotion
practice has contributed to employees perceptions of
ineffective leadership throughout the organization.
However, this portrait of organizations is not complete.
While distrust has crept into the cracks of organizations
and made a home, some leaders earn trust and
foster environments that engage employees. There are
simply not enough of them.
Transforming a bureaucratic, technically focused
culture requires leaders at all levels to become adept at
building trust and becoming more engaging. This means
developing individuals leadership capabilities before
they get promoted and believing that employees at all
levels can lead. Employees need role models with the
technical and leadership capabilities that live up to their
expectations of effective leadership.
Distrust in the Workplace
Distrust in the workplace has serious implications
for employee morale and engagement, productivity,
turnover, and the financial vitality of organizations.
Consider the following pitfalls.
Employee Morale and Disengagement
Distrust lowers the morale of employees as it saps
the passion and integrity associated with being part of a
group of people working toward a common mission or
goal. When distrust is pervasive or the organization and
its leaders lack consideration, employees withhold their
enthusiasm and commitment. When employees believe
that leadership doesnt consider their needs, they are unlikely
to extend trust and give their discretionary effort.
Employee engagement has a high correlation with their
willingness to put in extra effort.
An executive in one of our recent programs shared
a story about two different peers interactions with their
direct reports. One of the direct reports distrusted his
supervisor, intentionally holding back his effort and not
giving his best. The other employee had developed a solid
relationship built on mutual respect and trust. The latter
employee stayed late to finish important work, volunteered
for assignments, and gave her best effort every day.
The formula is relatively simple: when leaders look
out for employees, employees extend trust to their leaders.
When leaders only consider their own interests,
employees protect themselves by withholding their
discretionary effort. Distrust fosters disengagement, as
exhibited by mere compliance and a lack of caring, passion,
Employees direct supervisors have the biggest influence
on their workplace performance, ability to succeed,
and overall workplace satisfaction. In organizations
where distrust is pervasive, employees are more likely to
leave. The cost of turnover is estimated as the equivalent
of an entire years salary of the employee who left. In
other words, turnover is expensive.
Even when employees do not leave, distrust fosters
disengagement. Productivity stalls when employees give
without receiving anything in return. Absenteeism increases,
sick leave skyrockets, and health care costs rise.
Even worse, employees disengagement weighs on the
organizational culture like a stone.
Distrust has financial and productivity implications.
It slows down the pace of progress and bogs down even
the simplest actions.
Consider the micromanager who checks every piece
of work by his employees. What could be accomplished
if the supervisor trusted his teams capabilities? How
much are those extra hours of checking work adding up
to? What opportunities are lost? If you take the hourly
wage of the micromanager and multiply by the number
of hours wasted each month micromanaging, costs
add up to thousands of dollars per month. Consider the
cost if micromanagement is a cultural norm within your
organization: tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars
wasted. The cost of distrust can quickly balloon to millions
of dollars per year in large organizations.
Research by Gallup and other organizations has
shown that employee disengagement is costing organizations
billions of dollars per year. If trust and consideration
are the foundations for employee engagement,
how much is disengagement costing your organization
in terms of lost productivity, turnover, absenteeism, and
increased health care costs? What if every person in your
organization used three extra sick days per year to avoid
coming to work? The ripple effects, and their associated
costs, are staggering.The simple fact is that distrust not only
saps the way
people feel in an organization, it is fiscally irresponsible.
The good news for leaders is that trust can be built.
Contrary to the myth that trust takes years to develop,
leaders can quickly take action to build (and rebuild)
trust in the organization.
First, building trust requires intention. Trusted
leaders intentionally take the time to establish the
trust in relationships with employees, and employees
know there is trust because they observe and experience
it. This trust fosters a sense of connection. Leaders
whom are not trusted dont garner as much discretionary
Warren Buffett said, Trust is like the air we
breathe. When it is present, nobody notices. When it
isnt, everybody notices. The most effective leaders
realize that trust is the mortar that holds their organization
together and serves as the foundation for moving
an organization forward.
Second, leaders must realize that building trust requires
more than words. While leaders intentions serve
as a foundation for trust, they must recognize their
trustworthiness is judged by their actions. One participant
in a recent leadership development program at our
organization shared this notion: If my employees do
not see me doing anything differently and experience
my intentions through my actions, they arent going to
notice a difference. They need to see it in terms of actions
and consistently demonstrated behaviors.
When leaders behave congruently with their espoused
visions and model the types of performance
they expect of others, employees see they are willing to
lead by example. Through intentional action and an empathetic
approach considering how others view their
trustworthiness, leaders can begin to act in ways that
build trust rather than break it. Lets explore the key actions
leaders can take to build trust and rekindle workforce
By exhibiting some key behaviors and actions, leaders
can build, or rebuild, trust with employees. For simplicitys
sake, lets group these behaviors into three categories,
each of which is necessary for increasing trust
and fostering workforce engagement:
Leaders who want to build trust need to be aware
of how they communicate. One way to build trust
with people is to speak with transparency. When communicating
with others, be willing to share the facts,
but also your thoughts, reactions, and feelings and why
you think or feel that way. When spoken authentically,
communicating the what and the why illustrates
a leaders willingness to have tough conversations and
to demonstrate the human side of ones own authentic
perspective. To further increase trust, leaders should ask
for others perspectives and listen deeply to what is said
and not said. This notion of transparency is particularly
important during face-to-face conversations, where
people observe the leaders body language to help interpret
Organizational, team, and individual performance
should not be closeted. The more leaders openly and
honestly talk about performance, including their own,
the less defensive employees become when discussing
it. Leaders who discuss performance, balanced with the
care and thoughtfulness in helping others achieve success,
create environments that address both the task- and
person-needs of the workforce.
Some leaders believe they are the lone voice for
setting direction. Although statements and affirmations
are important in communication, leaders who want to
build trust must allow for mutual influence. A question
at the right time can be more important than an answer.
Leaders who inquire about others perspectives and extend
trust to others expertise earn trust back. This is
not to suggest that leaders disavow their responsibilities;
rather, it confirms their need to involve others in decision
In terms of the frequency of communication, leaders
should consider sharing twice as much as they think
is necessary. An absence of information leads people
to jump to conclusions. People are certainly capable
of thinking for themselves, but leaders must recognize
how important information is to people. People who
believe they lack a very important piece of information
are likely to feel tension and stress. Communicative
leaders build trust by communicating more frequently
to ensure that others are informed rather than being left
More effective communication fosters trust. Leading
by example demonstrates a leaders character.
One of the best character-driven ways to build
trust is for leaders to keep promises and commitments.
Keeping promises demonstrates integrity, a key factor in
peoples willingness to follow. Naturally, people do not
want to follow those who lack integrity.
The most effective leaders show humility and are
not afraid to share their human side. For example, a
leader is willing to share feelings on a topic, inquires
when someone is visibly upset, and openly admits making
a mistake. In a command-and-control environment,
being people-oriented is perceived as weak; however,
in todays organizations, people expect their leaders to
demonstrate both intellectual and emotional intelligence.
Rather than being seen as a weakness, it is reassuring
to see a leader who cares about people and, at
the same time, is committed to helping the organization
One of the fastest ways to diminish success is to act
incongruently with what you expect of others. If leaders
expect others to perform forthrightly, leaders must
do the same. This congruence between what one says
and what one does is a sign of trustworthiness.
To garner trust from others, leaders must demonstrate
both technical and leadership competence. Leaders
must maintain technical knowledge and skills and,
in parallel, seek to enhance their leadership capabilities.
This isnt to say that leaders must be experts in everything,
but they must have enough technical credibility
to earn their employees respect.
Moreover, good leaders recognize technical and
leadership competence in others and acknowledge it by
extending trust. Micromanaging decreases trust, while
extending trust to others fosters a sense of empowerment.
This is important as employees perceive the trust
extended to them as a sign of care and interest in their
Leaders who want to build trust, increase engagement,
foster change, and transform the bureaucracy realize
that every interaction with others is an important
opportunity to build trust.
Change is the current mantra, and leaders who want
to lead others through change and have it endure must
understand the importance of trust. Banishing an ineffective
bureaucratic culture from the public sector and
instilling in the public a sense of trust starts with leaders
at every level of the organization.
We need effective and engaging leaders who understand
the importance of trust and are willing to step into
roles where building trust is part of the job. The most
effective leaders understand the importance of trust and
recognize it as the foundation of interpersonal relationships,
team and organizational leadership, workforce engagement,
and sustainable workplace change.