3 Steps to Build a Culture of Trust


Steve Cadigan



Most talent professionals will tell you that we’re in the middle of a talent shortage and it’s a growing challenge to recruit and retain a high performing workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US has reported that tenure of professionals has been in a steady decline since 2000. In response, dozens of companies have been founded in the past two decades to try and understand why employees are leaving companies faster than ever before. Companies such as Glint, Culture Amp, Tiny Pulse, Get Feedback, and others founded in this timeframe have all primarily focused on employee engagement as the main source of truth to unpack what is happening.

Yet—turnover continues to rise which suggests maybe we have been measuring and focusing on the wrong thing. Perhaps there is something more fundamental at work that supersedes ‘engagement’ to make sense of this massive shift. Maybe trust is where we should focus our attention today. In a high-velocity business reality where disruption abounds and where the revered GE recently fell off of the S&P 500, and in a reality where the future is increasingly hard to predict, perhaps trust is a more important place for us to focus our attention. For employees to do their best work, they need to have psychological safety, and that results from being in a culture of trust. If you do not trust your leadership or your company’s strategy or direction, how can you possibly be engaged?

There’s a crisis of trust right now: trust in the media to report facts neutrally and accurately, trust in social platforms to handle our personal data with care, and trust in political and business leaders to do the right thing and not be corrupt. Further, our faith and trust in companies or even industries to be safe from disruption has been shaken with companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Instagram, Paypal, and Apple completely transforming the transportation, photograph, music, banking, and hotel industries. So, in this environment, what can leaders do to create a culture of trust with their workforce?

3 steps to build trust

There are three vital steps to building a culture of trust, and these actions must be consistently applied. As Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn likes to say “Trust is consistency over time” so there are no quick fixes and you must put in the time to get this right. The first is to approach conflict as collaborators, not adversaries. The second is to implement a practice of transparent communication, and the third is to be proactive and think through your actions and possible employee reactions so you can create opportunities that inspire employee trust.

Approach conflict as collaborators, not adversaries.

Tough workplace issues are real and necessary for relationships of trust to grow and for organizations to develop. Seeing conflict as an opportunity to build trust vs. a negative event is an important place to start. Most workplace conflicts spiral out of control because emotions are triggered and good judgment and objectivity become suspended. The events often result in an adversarial debate instead of collaborative dialog. We’re all human, and we react emotionally, but when we’re emotional and reactive, it impedes our ability to solve problems.

The key is to find a shared goal or value and anchor resolving the conflict around a shared goal or value. In other words, focus on a solution instead of blame. So let’s say someone said or did something that was upsetting to a coworker; or a team missed a product release schedule; or the sales team missed their target number—anchoring the conversation around a shared goal or value (“what can we do to prevent that from happening in the future?” vs. “why did you do that?”) allows people to be on the same side and collaborate. This is a critical first step in building a culture of trust. It takes time to develop this skill, and the top leaders of an organization must model it consistently in their daily actions so everyone can see what it looks like.

Communication that inspires trust.

During a recent webinar on this topic, Janine Yancey, CEO of Emtrain, and I asked webinar participants which trust-inspiring activity their business leaders struggle with the most. More than 50% of participants responded that their business leaders primarily struggle with transparent communication that inspires trust.

Having open communication is challenging for two reasons. First, it’s pretty common for business leaders to get so busy they forget to take time out of their day to focus on employee communication. And that silence creates a vacuum where employees may assume the worst. Second, it’s hard to have straightforward, transparent communications because business issues are often complex and difficult to explain to people who don’t know the context or all the details. And in the face of that difficulty, many leaders take the easy road and don’t say anything at all.

Just being intentional and having a steady cadence of straightforward communication about the status of the business and different projects is extremely helpful and puts employees at ease…instead of leaving them to assume no communication means bad things are on the horizon. Ask any salesperson who their most loyal and trusted customer is and they will tell you it’s always the one where a problem occurred and the company/salesperson owned it and fixed it. Owning a problem means you have to accept it and communicate it gracefully. This is not a sign of weakness but rather a strength. Authentic communication on sensitive topics and during tough times is when you have the greatest ability to build trust because you are showing others what you are made of. Taking the wrong path here has disastrous consequences—see Theranos as the latest example.

Anticipate reactions and think through the next steps.

While this last step may seem glaringly obvious, sadly it is not practiced nearly as often as it should be. Authenticity is ironically often a result of detailed preparation. Once again, there are so many things to distract us from taking the necessary time to think through communication and predict where there may be sensitivities. It takes a lot of effort to make something look natural, but it’s worth the effort.

Part of that preparation is thinking through how people are likely to react to a situation or communication and then re-calibrating based on the expected reactions. That preparation should include an employee survey or polling to get some visibility into employee concerns and what’s happening in the workforce. As leaders, we have to resist the instinct to always believe we have to know the answer. Trust comes from listening, learning and applying the insights of what you learned. It is 100% OK to say you are not sure, but you hear it’s important and will look into it and get back to them by a specific date. After getting a finger on the pulse, business leaders should ideally be investing enough time to think through possible employee reactions and modifying their actions to enable an easier, more authentic situation that fosters employee trust.

Building a culture of trust is absolutely vital for success in today’s business world, and these steps will help you set the proper foundation in your organization. We would love to hear from you about other ways you have found effective in building a culture of trust. Please send us your stories.


CommunicationLeadershipTrustWorkplace Culture

Steve Cadigan

Steve Cadigan is a world renowned talent expert with over 30 years experience in the HR/Talent Industry. Work Steve has done at Cisco Systems and LinkedIn has been recognized by the Wall Street Journal and Fortune Magazine as world class. Today Steve is sought out by leaders & companies to help them build compelling talent solutions, he teaches and speaks at Universities and Conferences around the globe, and he sits on several Boards of Directors for innovative firms.

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