The Sad State of Trust in Modern Leadership

For years now, people have been preaching the importance of trust in leadership and the negative repercussions of ignoring it. Has all this talk actually translated into notable improvements? Are workplaces fostering more trust?

Unfortunately, much research into the matter suggests a sad reality: Trust is not flourishing between leaders and those they lead.

In one study by Willis Towers Watson, only 45 percent of U.S. employees said their senior leaders create atmospheres of trust and confidence. At Davis Associates, we ran our own online survey to investigate workplace trust, and the results were eye-opening: Our poll showed that 57 percent of employees have no trust in their leadership.

As leaders, we need to pay greater attention to trust and how we cultivate it.

The Importance of Trust in Leadership

In an article for Harvard Business Review, author Stephen Covey and former Campbell's Soup CEO Douglas Conant write that, for leaders, "cultivating a high-trust culture is not a 'soft' skill – it's a hard necessity." For this reason, how to best nurture trust should be an integral part of any effective leadership development program.

Taking time to develop trust between leaders and employees can result in a number of tangible benefits, including reduced turnover, improved productivity, and higher levels of engagement. In addition, improved trust can unite employees, boost morale, and encourage confidence in an organization. According to one study, there is "a large degree of correlation between trust and an employee's intent to exert discretionary effort."

Increased trust in a company facilitates and expedites problem-solving and promotes constructive relationships between employees. Importantly, trust also makes the workplace more fun. This might not seem like a priority at first, but consider that employees are much more likely to remain with a company if they enjoy coming to work every day.

How Trust Is Damaged by Leaders

If you feel you have low levels of trust at your company, you might wonder what went wrong. There are a number of ways to destroy trust in leadership, any of which could be the case for your company.

First, you might have failed to prioritize transparent, regular, and honest communication. Regular communication is one of the most important performance management tools. Without frequent performance discussions, employees may feel they are unimportant to the business. Employees may also consider a lack of transparency regarding the progression and direction of the business to indicate leadership's lack of trust. In turn, they will likely withhold trust from their leaders.

Poor levels of trust can also arise from a sense of injustice. If an employee feels they aren't treated properly – for example, in terms of compensation, development opportunities, or performance reviews – their trust levels will plummet. To counteract this, managers should be conscious of treating employees fairly and equally. They should also refrain from making promises they can't keep.

Low levels of hope and confidence also lead to low levels of trust. If an employee sees the prospect of career advancement as hopeless, or feels they will never be given the training they require, they'll quickly lose trust in a company.

How Leaders Can Nurture Trust

According to Psychology Today, there are three main ways leaders can develop trust:

1. Demonstrate Trust in Their Colleagues and Employees

Once you give trust to others, it is easier to earn their trust in return. Trust can be demonstrated in a number of ways. For example, you might choose to give your employees more autonomy over their work or more flexibility in their schedules.

2. Communicate Openly and Effectively

Never underestimate the importance of regular communication. Employees don't want authoritative, anonymous bosses – they want coaches, leaders who will offer advice and assistance when needed. Remember: An employee's relationship with their manager can have a serious impact on their engagement levels.

3. Be Authentic and Honest

Your employees aren't stupid – which, of course, you already knew. After all, you only hire the best and brightest.

This means your employees know when you aren't being truthful. A lack of authenticity can seriously hurt trust.

Tell your employees the truth, even when you think they can't handle it. You might be surprised. Give your employees insight into the direction of the company and the challenges it faces. Not only will this increase trust, but it will also make your employees feel like valued members of the team.

At all times, leaders should be encouraging, clear, and consistent. Employees want – and deserve – leaders they can trust and companies they can be proud of.

Nick Davis is a business psychologist and director at Davis Associates.