Trust in leaders emerges as a pivotal workplace factor for 2020

Employees are seeking more than just a paycheck and benefits in the jobs they hold. Crucial are top executives’ integrity and candor, along with the organization’s mission and values. 

Why trust is key to engagement

In recent years, new trends have begun to reshape why employees work and what they value. 

New research conducted by APCO Worldwide, which analyzed workplace trends among U.S. employees, found that trustworthy leadership is a priority for employees when considering a place to work, second only to fair compensation and above other notable attributes including job security, culture and career advancement opportunities.  

Despite being one of the most sought-after attributes by job seekers, companies are largely missing the mark. Only 32% of employees feel that their company has trustworthy leaders. This deficit can have significant implications for organizations, including decreased productivity, engagement and retention.

For instance, in a study of 1,202 U.S. working-age adults last fall, 23% of employees said they would offer more ideas and solutions if they felt their leaders could be trusted to support them. Outcomes in this type of environment can lead to enhanced workplace productivity and engagement. 

When leaders are perceived as separated and unsupportive, employees are less likely to take risks, innovate or thrive in their job beyond what minimum roles and responsibilities require. 

Other findings from the same study revealed that one in five employees would be willing to work longer hours if they could identify mid-level through C-suite leaders that they could trust. One in four stated they would extend their tenure if they trusted all levels of leadership to “maintain transparency,” and one in three indicated they would remain with the company longer if leaders “kept their promises.” 

So how do leaders build trust? Although it can vary by company and situation, the overarching theme is open, continuous and reciprocal communication. Some ways to start:

1. Set clear expectations, and build in accountability. When employees know what is expected of them, and what they can expect from others, they are more likely to have confidence in the outcomes. Leaders should hold themselves and others accountable, admit mistakes, and share plans for change.

2. Communicate early and often. Providing transparent and consistent communications can help alleviate rumors which can undermine trust between leaders and employees.

3. Follow-through on commitments. Though it sounds simple, keeping promises and showing intermittent progress toward goals is one of the most important ways leaders can build trust.

4. Establish and communicate core values—and stick to them. Knowing that leaders stand for something can help inspire trust and affinity among employees. 

5. Give credit where credit is due. Receiving recognition for contributions and efforts can help employees feel that leaders “have their back” and are invested in them.

Trust is one of the most valuable resources in the workplace, but it takes time to earn and can be easy to lose. Leaders who want to earn the trust of those they lead must be willing to identify and understand the barriers to trust within their organization and take steps to ensure they are creating a future that benefits employees and the bottom line.

Kimberly Gardiner is director and head of APCO Worldwide’s talent and culture practice.

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