Trust in the workplace: how can you improve it? | HR blog

Published on June 2, 2021 by Camille Brouard
Trust in the workplace

Do your managers trust their employees? Do your employees trust their managers? High levels of trust in the workplace are very important for fostering a positive and innovative work culture. Here's what the research on trust and business says - and tips on how you can improve trust in your staff.

On the whole, the levels of trust people have in societal institutions and leaders... are not at an all-time high right now. In what they call an "epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust", the Edelman Trust Barometer (which has been going since 2000) reported that in 2021:

"The Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 1.9 million lives lost and joblessness equivalent to the Great Depression, has accelerated the erosion of trust around the world."

Workplace trust: what does the research say?


A similar phenomenon seems to be occurring within businesses. Let's take a look at some of the studies on trust in the workplace and how you can improve levels of employee trust across the business.

Workforce Institute: "Every workplace culture must start with trust"

The Workforce Institute at UKG surveyed nearly 4,000 business leaders and employees in 2020 about their attitudes and feelings about trust. They found that only a third of respondents believed that employers' trust in new employees should be presumed, most thinking it needed to be earned, even when a new employee had already gone through the interview process.

The Workforce Institute study found that a lack of trust was reported to impact negatively on employees' mental health, career choices, and sense of belonging within an organisation. A quarter of employees also responded saying they have left a job due to a lack of trust - so this has an impact on turnover rates too.

However, there were some positive findings post-pandemic: 52% of business leaders and employees reported that trust levels had gotten higher in the business than before the pandemic, with COVID-19 positively reshaping perceptions about remote work according to 61% of respondents. However, 55% of respondents did also say it was easier for them to trust colleagues within a physical workplace than virtually.

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CIPD: "Where has all the trust gone?"

A lack of trust in the workplace is not a new, COVID-related phenomenon by any stretch. Back in 2012, the CIPD conducted research to determine the perception of trust between higher ranking members of a team and lower level staff. The results showed that the two groups have differing opinions on the relationship, which could be a cause for concern should any issues arise.

3,000 employees and managers were asked to rate their trust in both senior members and members of the same seniority as themselves to determine how they viewed the connection (or division) within an organisation. Given a series of questions about the importance of trust in their workplace and what leaders should do to “create a climate of trust”, it was hoped that employees would reveal any problems with current management/employee relationships.

Just over a third (34%) of employees said that their level of trust in management is “weak”, but a high number of senior staff claim to trust in colleagues (92%) and line managers (80%) greatly. This is a vast difference and Claire McCartney, the author of the report, believes there may be a “them and us” mentality developing among junior members of staff. It could be interpreted that management are unaware, ignoring or refusing to address trust issues which will only serve to cultivate this harmful attitude in work relations.

Paul J. Zak: "The neuroscience of trust"

Researcher Paul J. Zak reported in the Harvard Business Review that:

"In my research I’ve found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance."

Zak has studied the neuroscience of trust for over two decades and has found that the brain produces oxytocin (a feel-good hormone) when someone decides to trust someone else or knows someone else finds them trustworthy. Higher oxytocin levels also prime us to be more trustworthy of others.

How to improve employee trust

How to improve employee trust

Unfortunately, it's not all about having pizza parties! According to the Workforce Institute study, these factors had the most positive effects on employees' levels of trust in their managers:

  • Being dependable (52%)
  • Being honest (34%)
  • Active listening (28%)
  • Giving helpful feedback (25%)
  • Leading by example (24%)
  • Caring about employee wellbeing (22%)

The CIPD study mentioned above highlighted some HR 'hot spots' that businesses should pay attention to when it comes to repairing and boost levels of trust from their employees, including the following:

  • Leaders and followers: the need for senior leaders to be visible within the organisation, enter into dialogues with their staff, be concerned about others' needs, and apologise for mistakes.
  • Restructuring and redundancy: having an open and transparent process, being fair to all employees, consulting the whole workforce, and trying to offer redeployment wherever possible.
  • Communicating change: being transparent and open about change, communicating authentically and in person (or over video), and apologising for mistakes/admitting when they're unsure.

Related article: Why managing change in the workplace is a must-have workplace competency

In experiments run within real workplaces, neuroscientist Paul J. Zak and his colleagues found that the following activities (among others) from managers boost trust within employees:

  • Recognising excellence: particularly if recognition is given immediately after a goal has been met and the praise is tangible, unexpected, personal, and public (which also inspires others to achieve excellence and recognise best practice).
  • Inducing "challenge stress": assigning challenging but attainable and concrete tasks to employees and teams "releases neurochemicals [...] that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections".
  • Give employees discretion: allow employees to manage people and projects in their own way whenever possible. This autonomy allows for innovation, as different people can try different approaches and feedback on what works best.
  • Sharing information broadly: make sure all employees have a clear vision of the company's goals, strategies, and tactics. This requires openness and regular communication.

These are all fascinating insights and excellent learnings for business leaders and managers looking to increase trust in the workplace. What strategies will you adopt to increase employee trust and gain the benefits for your organisation?

One thing that we know here at myhrtoolkit is that accessible HR documentation can really help you communicate openly with staff and share important information broadly across the business. If you'd be interested in improving how you manage and share HR policies, documents, and information with employees, have a look at our document management feature:

Find out more about how document management software can help your business securely store and manage important HR documentation, while making it more accessible to managers and employees.

document management software

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Written by Camille Brouard

Camille is a Senior Marketing Executive for myhrtoolkit who writes on topics including HR technology, workplace culture, leave management, diversity, and mental health at work.

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