Workers worldwide now trust their employer more than any other institution, according to Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer. But other research suggests that that trust is nevertheless weak when it comes to organizations’ senior leaders.

Only around a third of 15,500 human-resources professionals and organizational leaders said they trusted their employer’s senior leadership, in a recent survey from leadership-consulting firm DDI. Less than half trusted their direct manager. As layoffs and hiring freezes continue apace, that trust is now especially fragile.

To understand how organizations can strengthen employee trust, we reached out to Stephanie Neal, the director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research. Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

What are some reasons why trust in leadership might be lower right now?

We came through a really tough time. So I think our expectations of leaders really got high, especially in companies or in industries where leaders didn’t normally care about where you worked, your health and wellbeing, all of that. So there’s a big expectation increase that’s happened for people. In those times, that helps us to then look more for those opportunities to say, ‘Are our leaders really meeting our expectations? Are we really seeing that people still care?’ People are starting to think about, what does it mean to have a human work experience anymore? What is uniquely important? And they’re looking for more from their leaders for that as well.

And there’s all this uncertainty right now. There’s a lot of ways that people are feeling about work and even some of the disruptions at work—things like ChatGPT—technologies that might be replacing certain roles, and people feel vulnerable about that. When there’s that kind of uncertainty out there, it makes it harder for people to trust. And leaders may not be taking as many opportunities as they need to help build that trust.

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The recent Edelman Trust Barometer report noted that employees trust their coworkers more than their managers, more than their head of HR, and more than their CEO. In your experience, is there any kind of trickle-up effect, or are those three instances of trust separate from one another?

It’s more the proximity of the relationship. Who we see definitely biases how much someone has an opportunity to even build trust. So the two ratings that we reported out in our trust finding were that only about a third of leaders trust their senior leaders, and just under half trust their direct manager. And that’s likely because they have that closer relationship, they have more proximity to that person, they can actually think of opportunities where that person has built trust with them. Immediate managers really do bear more of the burden of making sure they’re building trusting relationships in day-to-day conversations.

Senior leaders have a level of visibility where they have to build trust differently. Just knowing that they can’t realistically meet with every single employee one-on-one and build that same relationship, communication becomes so much more important. What we see with senior leaders and executives, the best way for them to build trust is to make sure that they’re visible and then they’re communicating effectively. That’s in the big moments, those big opportunities where they have to share out their values and what they see as important for the organization.

There are opportunities where they do have those one-on-one leadership moments too, not only with their direct reports, but at companies where they’re on the floor, where they’re meeting with people more. That’s where those interpersonal skills really become important.

As you said, a CEO can’t regularly have one-on-ones with every employee. What else can leaders do to cultivate that sense of a two-way relationship?

We see a lot of organizations build in approaches to make sure they’re getting feedback from people. It’s getting that feedback cycle, making sure that there’s an opportunity to stay in touch with employees. Formal mentoring is one way that we see a lot of that get built in for senior executives or leaders that may not necessarily get that kind of feedback—it’s really reverse mentoring, where they act as formal mentors and then they get input from people that they work with.

What’s the way to make sure that verbal messages of caring about wellbeing aren’t being received as self-serving, or leadership patting itself on the back?

That’s where every leader needs to understand their audience. Show you’re continuing to check in with people about, how this is feeling? Some leaders are really good at just checking across people from different functional areas to see how they’re feeling. But certainly surveys are a great tool and there’s a lot of different feedback mechanisms to do that. We use one that we like a lot, that’s more of an ongoing quick check-in survey rather than a long, lengthy survey, because a lot of people get concerned about survey fatigue.

What’s in your quick check-in survey?

It’s specific to the behaviors that leaders are developing. It allows people that are around you to quickly respond just via text to say, ‘Yes, this, I’m seeing this frequently,’ or ‘I’m not.’ And it gives leaders feedback explicitly on those behaviors to say, ‘Oh, am I doing a good job here or not?’

Read a transcript of our conversation, including how leaders can calibrate the right level of transparency, and the link between trust and creativity.

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