Proven Ways to Earn Your Employees’ Trust

BY Caroline O’Hara, Harvard Business Review

Trust is often talked about as the bedrock of a company’s success. Most people think about the issue in terms of customers: They have to believe in you and your products and services. But trust within the organization is just as important: Your employees must believe in each other. When they don’t, communication, teamwork and performance inevitably suffer. After New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger fired the newspaper’s editor, Jill Abramson, in May, he explained that he’d repeatedly warned her that she was losing the trust of the newsroom. But how do you build trust in the workplace?

What the Experts Say
Trust is an “evolving thing that ebbs and flows,” says David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of The Truth About Trust. And yet it’s essential to boosting employee engagement, motivation, and candor. Employees are more likely to follow through on goals set by a manager they trust and to be more forthcoming about the challenges they see on their level. “Managers will never learn the truth about a company unless they have employees’ trust,” explains Jim Dougherty, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and veteran software CEO. That’s why it’s so critical for managers to constantly reinforce their trustworthiness. Here’s how.

Make a connection
One of the most effective trust-building strategies is to create a personal connection. That’s especially true for managers. “As a person’s power increases, their perceived trustworthiness goes down,” says DeSteno; they seem less reliant on others and therefore less trustworthy. Counteract this view by getting to know the people on your team, and letting them get to know you. This might involve chatting about how you share a hometown or like the same sports team. It could also include hosting regular brown-bag lunches or occasionally taking a few calls with the customer service team. “Do something that makes them believe that you are one of them,” says Dougherty. That signals that “even though you are the boss, in the end you’re all in this together.”

Be transparent and truthful
Share as much as you can about the current health and future goals of the company. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself constantly battling the rumor mill. If there is a void of information, employees will fill it and they will always fill it with negative information,” says Dougherty. There may be some data that you cannot share, like compensation, but regularly distributing other information — like financial results, performance metrics, and notes from board meetings — shows that you trust your employees, which in turn helps them have greater faith in you. Part of being transparent also involves having the integrity to tell the truth, even if it means you have to be the bearer of bad news. “If you can’t tell people the hard stuff, they won’t trust you,” says DeSteno.

Encourage rather than command
Employees know the difference between being given orders and being offered encouragement. “You don’t succeed in the long run by telling people what to do,” says Dougherty. “You have to motivate them to do it.” When employees feel empowered to succeed and believe that the goals of the company are aligned with their own, they’ll work harder and smarter. For managers, that means delegating tasks and granting as much autonomy as possible, while also making it clear what your expectations are and how performance will be measured. “People will trust you if you trust them,” says Dougherty.

Take blame, but give credit
No one wants a boss who hogs all the glory, but dishes out harsh criticism when times get tough.The best way to get people to behave well is to give credit,” says Dougherty. That reinforces the sense that people are working toward shared goals rather than simply for a boss’s personal agenda. Instead of casting blame for layoffs or poor profits, stress that it is the company — and your own leadership — that need to improve. This signals that you “don’t believe different rules apply to you than apply to others in the organization,” says DeSteno.

Don’t play favorites
If there is a surefire way to lose trust, it’s by playing favorites in the office. Any time there is favoritism, people will see it,” says Dougherty. “If you treat some people better than others, you totally blow it.” If you always give certain employees information or assignments first, or if you only ever ask a few out to lunch or to the ballgame, everything else you do to build trust will be undermined. You also want to avoid badmouthing at all costs, because it sends the signal that your public and private personas diverge. “People need to know that they are dealing with the true you,” says DeSteno. If they catch you criticizing a colleague behind his or her back, “they’ll assume that, as soon as they leave the room, you aren’t treating them well either.”

Show competence
If you aren’t good at your job, you can forget about earning employees’ trust. “Even if everyone likes you, you have to be competent to be trusted,” says DeSteno. That means regularly updating your own skills and following through on commitments. You should also avoid trying to be an expert in all things; those in the know will spot faked knowledge immediately. If you have the humility to ask questions and express an eagerness to learn, you’ll work smarter — and so will your employees. After all, “we can accomplish a lot more working with other people and relying on their expertise than we could alone,” says DeSteno.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Emphasize what you have in common — it helps employees believe that their goals are aligned with yours
  • Share whatever information you can — when people feel trusted, they’ll trust you back
  • Admit mistakes and accept responsibility

Don’t:

  • Give orders — motivating employees to succeed on their own will earn you trust
  • Badmouth anyone — people will automatically assume you’ll also speak poorly of them when their backs are turned
  • Fake knowledge — employees need to see you are competent enough to admit what you don’t know