5 ways to rebuild lost trust

Only one in 10 employees trust their company’s management team. Follow these tips to win back—and keep—their trust.

I recently decried the results of a survey that indicates U.S. workers’ trust in management continues to erode, even as the nation’s economy struggles to regain its footing. If ever there was a time when business leaders need the confidence and engagement of employees, it’s now.

According to the survey, only one in 10 employees trust management to make the right decisions in difficult times. In a telling bit of data, 7 percent believe their leaders’ actions match their words.

Such an alarming lack of trust has serious consequences for business. A workforce that doesn’t trust its management is one that is not very likely to invest itself in the difficult tasks ahead. Distrustful employees are more likely to spend their time griping about how their jobs suck, how the company is headed for disaster and how senior management is a bunch of buffoons. All of this chips away at productivity, morale and reputation. It drains the life right out of the organization.

I seriously doubt that’s what American business leaders want. Yet they are so consumed with digging out of the recession, trying to light a fire under the weak recovery, propping up the financials so that investors don’t lose their confidence, that they fail to recognize what’s happening inside their companies. And they fail to recognize that they have a powerful tool available to help regain the trust they’ve lost among employees: communication.

I don’t believe communication is the cure-all for any business problem, including the erosion of trust. But I do believe that, combined with other activities, communication can help greatly. However, communication is often the first thing business leaders sacrifice during tough times and the last thing they think about as a resource for recovery.

Here are five things business leaders can do to begin to rebuild employees’ trust:

  • Be visible. People don’t trust people that they never see and with whom they never interact. Roger D’Aprix, an internal communications icon, once said that trust isn’t built by sending a memo. Face-to-face interaction is necessary for trust to be established. That’s because people assess others by a host of non-verbal signals—body language, tone of voice, inflections, facial expressions.
  • Spend quality time with people. When I worked in employee communications at one of AT&T’s manufacturing facilities in the 1990s, the president of our business unit once told me that communication was his most important job as a leader. When he visited our plant, he always took an hour to walk out onto the factory floor and talk with people. He communicated business messages and he asked questions and he listened. That one hour went a long way toward establishing trust with employees. Business leaders must build time into their schedules, no matter how brief, to communicate.
  • Demonstrate trustworthiness. As the survey points out, workers today don’t believe management’s words match their actions. Business leaders who find themselves in this predicament must take concrete steps to demonstrate that their “say” matches their “do.” Honor commitments. Keep appointments. It will take time, but employees will begin to have faith that their leader’s word is trustworthy.
  • Trust others. Showing others that you trust them goes a long way toward building their trust in you. Business leaders can demonstrate they trust employees by sharing information, delegating responsibility and generally treating employees like adults. Workers who feel their management doesn’t even trust them with work-related information are not very likely to reciprocate.
  • Open up. Just as in personal relationships, business leaders must take some risks by opening up, being honest and showing some vulnerability in order to gain employees’ trust. This means sometimes sharing sensitive information, engaging in frank discussions and admitting mistakes.

Trust takes time to build, a moment to destroy and even more time to rebuild.

People who feel their trust has been betrayed or at least not honored will try to protect themselves from a similar disappointment by not easily trusting again. Unfortunately, this is where many business leaders find themselves today. It’s not a hopeless place, but escaping it requires time, intention, and a sincere effort

Robert J. Holland blogs at Communication at Work where a version of this article originally ran.


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