First things first: Inspiring trust with employees

Investing in trust is an investment in long-term business performance.

It’s been a hard year for trust. If it were a product we were trying to sell, we’d be alarmed about its future. We’re surrounded by headlines of trust gone wrong. From employees staging walkouts over business practices to intensifying scrutiny on who to do business with, companies are standing in a big bright spotlight. And they are struggling to maintain the confidence of their employees, customers, investors and the public. 

To help shift the eroding culture of trust, leaders need to start by looking inward — to the people who are closest to their business — employees. Leaders who aspire to build high-trust organizations do three things: They establish guiding principles, create values-driven cultures, and reinforce open and transparent communications. The payoff for this is not just a culture that draws in and engages top talent, it’s also good for the bottom line. Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer shows that ‘high trust’ companies in the U.S. outperformed their peers by an average of 5%. 

Trust within an organization is reinforced by consistent behavior over time. When leaders set guiding principles for trust, they create a clear, consistent ethical bar for doing business. Principles vary depending on the organization, but in general they should address how data is used, what customers can expect, and how employees can report issues and share feedback without retribution. Setting the expectation that trust is the first principle for doing business helps avoid or minimize decisions that break trust. 

Employees have changing expectations about how and when their companies take a stand on issues they care about. Having clearly articulated values that are authentically reinforced throughout the organization helps create shared cultural expectations. To be effective in building trust, values need to move past just being words on a page to being actively used in decision making and recognition. 

They can also help steer the course on complex topics that span across personal and professional identities, such as diversity, politics, and social issues. Patagonia is a shining example of aligning values with business practices. Can you imagine how employees might react if the company did things that were out of sync with its belief in being an active steward for the environment? 

The most demonstrable way to showcase commitment to trust is through open, trans- parent communications that start at the top of the organization. This takes an unwavering leadership commitment to sharing an insider’s view with employees, not just when things are going well, but most importantly when things aren’t. Having the courage to openly talk about where you’re falling short or when you’ve made a misstep is one of the most powerful ways to build trust. One bright example of this was how Microsoft’s CEO and head of HR responded to a surge of women who were frustrated about their advancement within the company. It was hard feedback to hear, but the leaders moved quickly to address the concerns and open doors for discussions on how to get better. This constructive approach was possible because of the ongoing commitment to open communication. 

Employee trust can make or break the success of a company, and it’s imperative for leaders to invest in building a strong foundation to maintain confidence over time. To continue to win the hearts and minds of employees, trust needs to be the first leadership principle. The payoff for this is a more engaged and committed organization, a stronger brand for retaining and recruiting top talent, and employees who are invested in helping their business thrive. To be a company you believe in, it all starts with trust. 

To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.

Blythe Yee leads internal communications at LinkedIn, where she helps connect employees to the business and culture, drives transformational change, and helps leaders at all levels succeed.