5 communication tips to build trust with workers

Be honest—especially when the news is bad. Encourage employees to ask tough questions, and clearly convey top leaders’ vision for the future.

Trust is not about guaranteeing employees that nothing bad will ever happen.

If building trust requires a guarantee of anything, it’s that the company will tell employees what’s really going on—even if it’s bad news.

Employees are smart enough to realize that no company can promise lifetime employment anymore. Most employees don’t even want lifetime employment. They want interesting, challenging, meaningful work.

Workers today start a job with the expectation that eventually they’ll move on to another company. Your staffers are not naïve. Honesty, then, becomes the primary pillar of trust.

Employees feel trust in their company—and thus do their best work and are most engaged—when they believe managers are being honest with them. So how does a company do that?

1. Tell employees about any significant changes in the company. Tell them quickly—before the rumor mill (or news media outlets) can get a jump on you. Some CEOs and other leaders delude themselves that if they don’t say anything, employees won’t notice that anything is going on. Some are just afraid of having tough conversations. Either way, not being upfront with workers is tantamount to a slap in the face—not to mention the fastest way to erode trust.

Employees know when something is up. In the absence of management communication, they’ll uncover information wherever they can get it—or concoct their own theories.

2. Tell the truth, even when it’s bad news particularly when it’s bad news. If employees know the company will be straightforward in communicating negative developments, they tend not to worry so much. It seems counterintuitive, but sharing bad news makes employees feel more comfortable instead of less so. Truth supersedes silence.

3. Give employees credit for being smart enough to know that businesses have ups and downs. We all have personal highs and lows. Businesses, too, have seasons of prosperity and lean times.

If the business is down today, that doesn’t mean it won’t be up tomorrow. Your people will respect honest assessments and timely updates on how the company is faring.

4. Make room for employees to ask questions. Honest communication must be a two-way street. Provide an intranet page for submitting questions. Hold employee Q&As, conduct town hall meetings or create some sort of venue where your people can ask managers about tough issues.

These sorts of exchanges are good for employees, but it’s also important to let company leaders respond to concerns that are swirling around the workplace.

Employees deserve valid information so they can make their own decisions—even if that means their decision will be to leave the company. However, by answering their questions, you make it less likely they’ll do so. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as employees imagine it to be.

5. Share your leaders’ vision for the future. Most corporate management teams believe they’re doing this all the time—and it’s typically true that the people closest to them are familiar with the vision. Speak to the rank and file, however, and you’ll often find there is a chasm regarding understanding that vision. The further away an employee is from the top, the less confident they are that company leaders have a clear plan.

Leaders should take charge and crystalize where the company is going. One effective channel is a management blog, enabling leaders to electronically “walk the halls.”

An internal blog enables the CEO to communicate with the entire workplace. Blogging offers an opportunity to robustly establish, clarify, detail and reinforce the company vision—over and over and over again. That’s how you build trust.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin is CEO of Tribe, an internal communication agency based in Atlanta. 


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