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Trust in the workplace is a key component to unlock your staff's performance potential and boost business success.

The Importance of Trust at Work – 1: Trusting Your Employees

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Trust in the workplace is one of the major pillars of a thriving business. We place trust in our staff while they, hopefully, place theirs in us. Then at the end of everything is a customer, client, service user or others who we need to trust all of us, in order to be a successful organisation.

Back in 2016, a study by PwC found that employees who felt trusted in the workplace felt 76% more engaged than those in low-trust workplace environments, and as we have previously covered, employee engagement is absolutely vital for helping to boost productivity, reduce staff turnover and attract top talent.

Trust permeates every level of what we do, regardless of industry. When trust is broken at work and fails to recover, businesses can be doomed to struggle.

Workplace trust can be broadly split into two categories: How much do managers and leaders trust their employees to work diligently while upholding the values of the company, and to what extent can staff trust their management to do right by them while maintaining a high standard of ethics and giving employees something larger than themselves to work towards?

In this two-part series on trust in the workplace, we’ll be looking at both sides of this discussion. First up,  why can it be hard to trust employees, sometimes?

Trust in the workplace is vital across all companies for ensuring top performance.
Trust in the workplace is a key building block for unlocking the full potential of our people.

What makes an untrustworthy employee?

It can all start from the first time we meet, during the hiring process.  Studies have shown that applicants lie both on applications (83% of us according to HireRight’s 2019 employment screening benchmark report) and during the interview itself, primarily to conform to job requirements Usually, any exaggerations of one’s skills will become clear relatively early within a new job, leading to a strong likelihood of potential resentment on the interviewers part.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology has also shown a correlation between extraversion and the number of lies told, implying that confident candidates have the potential to use and perhaps get away with more dishonesty.

However, a 2015 study published in the Australasian Journal of Organisational Psychology actually found more of a link between neuroticism and intention to lie in an interview. The researchers characterised neuroticism as, in part, a greater level of negativity. They suggested that mistrust of the interviewer could make neurotic candidates more likely to be dishonest.

So while academics are split on where the likelihood lies, there is certainly agreement that interviewees and applicants can be dishonest. Not the best ground upon which to build a relationship of trust.

But that’s not all there is to it. Mistrust doesn’t just apply to new hires. For example, new management might be brought in to head up a pre-existing team, and it is certainly possible to lose trust in someone after working with them for a while. To understand why employers can be mistrustful of their staff, it is vital to understand of what makes a bad employee. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than ‘someone who does their job poorly.’ A study by the Center for Creative Leadership surveyed business leaders worldwide and asked them to rank problematic employee behaviours.

As you might expect, poor job performance was the top response, but the other responses in the top eleven highlight the complexity of the issue. They included the inability to work with others, lack of personal responsibility and poor work ethic. Interestingly, lack of the correct skills was only the tenth on the list, suggesting that not already having the correct skillset for the job was considered less disruptive than issues that stemmed from personal attitudes. It’s also important to remember that many of these issues might stem from an employee struggling with workplace stress or a poor work/life balance.

Mistrust at work can begin as early as the job interview.
Trust in the workplace starts with the application and job interview and expands to all we do as workers and business owners.

A US-based study of over 3000 full-time employees and over 2000 hiring managers and HR personnel by CareerBuilder and Harris Poll in 2015 found that 38% of employees over that year had taken sick leave when they felt well. Additionally, one-third of employers had caught an employee lying about illness by checking social media.

Over half of employee participants had access to Paid Time Off (PTO) schemes allowing them to take a day off whenever they wish. However, the study also found that 27% of these felt compelled to make up an excuse such as illness. Arguably, this is a holdover of toxic workplace culture, where an employee may feel judged by their management or co-workers for making use of the scheme out of concern that they might not have a “good enough” reason for doing so.

What distrust from your boss looks like

One of the key signs that a manager lacks trust in their employee(s) is that old favourite, micromanagement. They might go over all your work with an unnecessarily fine-toothed comb, or float around your workstation as though they’re just waiting for you to do something stupid. Micromanagement is not an effective way to handle employees, so why does it happen?

The truth is that nobody goes into a leadership role planning to micromanage their team. Very few would admit, even self-critically, to doing it. While the behaviour can stem from having to deal with a difficult employee, it is also often the result of anxiety on the part of the manager, especially if they have people above them judging their performance. A team’s output reflects heavily on its leader, after all. For others, it’s an extension of their desire to be in charge. 48% of bosses prefer to be seen as experts in their field, and 41% of workplace leaders taking part in an online survey described themselves as having a ‘very strong desire for power.’

The effects of workplace distrust

Put simply, a lack of trust comes right out of your bottom line. People who trust each other will make more money together than those who don’t. This has been shown time and time again, such as in research published in The Economic Journal under the title ‘Trust and Growth’. A paper by researchers from Harvard and other universities corroborated this on a more societal level, finding that societies with low levels of trust were more likely to make decisions leading to lower levels of economic growth.

Paul J. Zak, one of the researchers from the Trust and Growth study, went on to publish an article in Harvard Business Review entitled, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” discussing the importance of trust in the workplace:

‘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.’

Remote working relies on trust between mangers and their employees.
Remote and flexible work are huge benefits to many companies and their staff, but without trust it may not be a viable option.

According to Zak, this was the statistical breakdown of his findings: Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies reported 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.

Stress is one of the most prevalent issues in the workplace today, both for executives and employees. And if the employer doesn’t trust their staff, it follows that they will struggle to gain loyalty from their team. So if distrust is such a huge factor in productivity, how can we tackle it?

Overcoming distrust

Trust issues in the workplace aren’t new, but tackling them requires modern solutions. We can’t stress enough how important healthy communication is. The only way to get to the root of these issues is to talk to the employee in question. Employees who feel their manager cares about them are more likely to express loyalty to them and the company, and loyal people are more productive. So by addressing an individual’s issues, executives stand to strengthen an employee’s connection to the company and deal with their own concerns at the same time. But executives running large companies hardly have the time to go through each cubicle, sitting down with everyone in turn. Not to mention that everyone hates annual performance reviews.

So a streamlined, digitised review process could be incredibly useful in fostering a trusting work environment. Using Weekly10 as an example, weekly check-ins take only a few minutes and are highly customisable. This has the dual benefit of making the employee feel like they matter while enabling our managers to keep an eye on their staff using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), make concise and relevant feedback and do it all without aggressively micromanaging their team.

Research Associate