Want Your Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them12 July, 2017 / Articles
Executives and managers invest a lot of effort and time building trust in their teams: both establishing trust in their employees and ensuring that their employees trust them in return. But many employees say they do not feel trusted by their managers. And when employees don’t feel trusted, workplace productivity and engagement often suffer. It’s up to managers to signal trust in their employees in consistent and thoughtful ways.
We have explored the dynamics of the trusting relationship between managers and their employees for over 10 years in multiple organizations and hundreds of manager-employee pairs. Research that we and others have conducted offers evidence of the ripple effects of a manager-employee trust gap. Employees who are less trusted by their manager exert less effort, are less productive, and are more likely to leave the organization. Employees who do feel trusted are higher performers and exert extra effort, going above and beyond role expectations. Plus, when employees feel their supervisors trust them to get key tasks done, they have greater confidence in the workplace and perform at a higher level.
In short, trust begets trust. When people are trusted, they tend to trust in return. But people must feel trusted to reciprocate trust. Managers have to do more than trust employees; they need to show it. Based on our research work and time spent in companies studying trust, we’ve identified some of the most important ways managers erode trust and how they can signal it more clearly to their teams.
How Managers Chip Away at Trust
Mutual trust requires some degree of risk-taking and reflection. There are at least three reasons why leaders and organizations don’t demonstrate their trust in employees:
Lack of self-awareness. Managers often lack the self-awareness required to realize that their own actions may communicate a lack of trust. They are likely to think that because they trust an employee, the employee will know it. But even well-intentioned actions, such as providing support or periodic check-ins on a project, may convey to employees that they are not trusted enough to complete the work independently.
Risk-averse by design. Organizations often design their structure, policies, and culture in order to minimize risk and optimize efficiency. But organizations that are risk averse may also signal that employees cannot be trusted with resources and information. Centralization of authority, restricted resources and information, and bureaucratic cultures heavy with regulation limit employee initiative. Managers may support their employees taking that initiative — but in a risk-averse organization, such ideas won’t likely see the light of day. One company we worked with was seeking to cultivate innovation and creativity, but the approval for new projects involved a 12 -month process requiring endorsement from a C-suite committee. This process was effectively inaccessible to many employees, stifling innovation and leaving employees’ feeling untrusted. And even if the fault lies with the organization’s policy, employees may still blame their own supervisor, thereby eroding trust.
“Bottom line” mentality. Pressure to reach performance targets and control costs sometimes leads managers to do things that unintentionally signal a lack of trust. When these pressures are great, many managers become focused on their own job security and respond by constricting control. This can lead to the type of thinking that focuses on only securing bottom-line outcomes, which often come at the expense of other priorities, like developing relationships and empowering employees to make independent decisions.
What Managers Can Do to Signal Trust
Despite these common obstacles, there are several ways managers can signal trust in an employee:
Taking stock. First, don’t assume that your employees have high trust in you. Learn to read their trust levels by understanding the risks and vulnerabilities they face. Take an inventory of the practices, policies, and controls found in your organization: Are they risk-tolerant? When you look at policies from the perspective of the employee, are they designed to engage employees or to protect the organization from them?
Take an assessment of your own conduct, too — the list of questions below is a good start. If you’ve answered “no” to any of these questions, your employees likely do not trust you as much as you would hope.