Over the past few months, we’ve noticed a trend in conversations with our customers and prospects – they’re all talking about “leadership trust.” Companies realize that building and maintaining this trust is especially important right now. Employees are overburdened, organizations are transforming overnight, and the future is uncertain due to the global health crisis and the accompanying move to remote work.

To better support our partners and users, as well as educate ourselves, we’ve been digging into this timely concept in more detail to understand what it is, how it can be measured, and what companies can do to improve it.

What is Leadership Trust and why is it important?

“Leadership trust” means exactly what it sounds like: that employees feel like they can trust their leadership. In practice, it had different implications at different levels of the organization:

At the executive and company level, leadership trust means that employees trust their company leadership to guide the company competently, ethically, and towards success as a business. This is especially crucial in the current moment, when many executive teams find themselves charged with leading their organizations through the worst health and financial crises in recent history.

In addition, company trust in its employees is equally important with so many employees working remotely. Cultivate’s Senior People Scientist Rachel Habbert summarized this well: “Companies who don’t trust their employees will not be successful in working remotely. Companies have to trust employees to get their work done at home in a way that makes sense for them given their personal commitments.”

Thanks to our work at Cultivate, we’re particularly interested in what leadership trust means between managers and their teams. At this level, leadership trust means the ability to have safe and honest conversations with your manager about work, and sometimes about your personal life outside of work. It also means trusting your manager to have your back when representing your work or performance to those higher up in the organization.

Leadership trust at the manager level is often described similarly to “psychological safety,” a term coined by Harvard University professor Amy Edmondson for the belief that you won’t be punished (either directly or indirectly) for making a mistake. Research has found that this belief encourages employees to be more innovative by being more willing to take risks and propose new ideas to leadership.

Google’s research on what makes an effective team – effectiveness, in this case, being a combined measure of hard success metrics and more nuanced qualitative values, like team culture – found five attributes that make teams more effective. In order of importance, they are:

  • Psychological Safety – Feeling safe taking risks around team members.
  • Dependability – Completing quality work on time.
  • Structure and Clarity – Understanding the goals, processes and structure of the team and the work to be done, and the consequences of each individual’s contributions.
  • Meaning – Feeling a sense of purpose in the work itself or its output.
  • Impact – Seeing how your work makes a difference.

Both first and second place clearly tie back to trust. And all of this has tangible benefits for the company – research has found that better workplace trust improves productivity, employee retention and ultimately company revenue.

There is also a clear connection between leadership and team trust and another important topic of the day: team resilience.

Team resilience is the team’s ability to react to challenges and come out on the other end as strong or stronger than before. Simply put, without trust between managers and teams, the clear communication required for teams to react and adapt simply can’t occur.

How can leaders build trust with their teams?

Leaders can build trust by developing positive relationships with their team members, showing expertise (especially true for managers in technical functions) and good judgement, being consistent, and demonstrating trust in their employees. Here are some concrete strategies managers can use to build a trusting relationships with employees and foster a psychologically safe team environment:

  • Not micromanaging. Taking employees at their word and letting them complete tasks independently demonstrates that you trust them to get their work done.
  • Being receptive to feedback. Employees will trust leaders more if they feel like the leader listens and responds to feedback from others. Accepting feedback can be difficult – one of the ways we’re trying to help managers with Cultivate is by giving feedback based on hard-data rather than human input, which can reduce bias and make it easier to accept (more on this in one of our recent blog posts).
  • Demonstrate an interest in your employees’ life outside of work. Many employees are dealing with a lot right now. Spend a moment during 1-1s and check-ins to ask how employees are doing, and if they need anything.
  • Be available to your team. This is especially important for teams who are working remotely, since digital mediums may become the primary medium for sharing and receiving insights from your team. Cultivate can help leaders create an open dialogue with their team members over digital mediums by encouraging leaders to be good “digital listeners” by asking questions, and offering opinions.
  • Be transparent. This includes upper management being open and honest with rank and file employees about how the company is doing (beyond sharing basic financial information) and transparency between managers and their teams. An example of this might be being open with your team when you don’t know the answer to a question.

While the lion’s share of the work to build trust in leadership falls to leaders themselves, platforms like Cultivate can help by encouraging managers to be available, and have dialogue with their teams both remotely and in-person.

We have also been working on products that encourage managers to be transparent with their teams about their own areas for growth, and create the two-way dialogue that is crucial for building trust.

For example, a manager might get feedback from Cultivate that they have been messaging their team after-hours. While we hope this feedback alone would kickstart the process of behavior change, what if this feedback was then shared with the team to start a conversation about when everyone is comfortable receiving work messages? Not only would this educate the manager on how best to communicate with their reports, it would also serve as a moment to build trust the team will recognize that they respect their work-life boundaries and are receptive to their concerns. Stay tuned for more news about that update in the coming weeks.

Leadership trust is essential to a resilient, high-functioning workplace now more than ever. Organizations should consider how they can support their managers and leaders to help them build and maintain engaged, trusting relationships with their teams.

Margaret Tomaszczuk
Margaret Tomaszczuk

Margaret Tomaszczuk is the Head of Customer Experience, partnering with Fortune 500 enterprises to scale leadership development globally. She’s been focused on building AI products and is passionate about promoting interdisciplinary thought in technology and AI, and ethical AI design.

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