The presence of trust can make or break a team structure. During times of uncertainty, the pressure falls on leaders to maintain, and sometimes restore trust within teams.

However, less than half of leaders trust their own manager to do what is right, and less than a third say they trust senior leaders at their organisation, according to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2023 (GLF).

When emotions and workloads run high, trust can be the first thing to fall apart. This is particularly the case when leaders are working to rebuild team morale after layoffs, so it’s crucial to put a focused effort into building trust.

How Trust Paves The Path To Success

The presence of trust in the workplace is not just a ‘nice to have’. It significantly impacts important areas such as employee retention, team productivity and building talent which all contribute to the overall success of a business.

Trust goes both ways, and without it, businesses may experience high employee turnover. Our research has found 70% mid- and senior-level women who didn’t trust their senior leaders said they intended to leave, compared to only 26% who trusted their senior leaders.

The increase of remote work has prompted a new area where trust is required. Since the pandemic, most leaders now find themselves working in and managing either a hybrid or remote team. Leaders who work remotely are 22% more likely to trust senior leaders compared to their counterparts who work in person.

It could be that the option to work remotely results in increased trust, or it may be that companies with a leadership culture based on trust more likely to allow remote work. But what is clear is that companies grappling with the question of in-person versus remote work may also be struggling with mistrust.

Additionally, trust also needs to be felt when facing times of uncertainty. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), can leave people feeling uneasy at work, questioning what their role will look like on the not-so-distant future. Leaders need to be open about how AI is, or is not, being implemented in the company with both employees and customers. Teams need to feel empowered to feel confident when adopting new technology, and communication from leaders is a key part of that.

Trust is Earned: The Crucial Link Between Leadership Behaviour and Trust

The good news is that there are steps that can be taken to ensure trust becomes a central focus within an organisation and its leaders.

1. Put Empathy at The Centre of Communication

Think of a situation where the person you were talking to wasn’t listening. How did you feel? Probably not great. As a leader, the key to listening and responding with empathy is showing the other person you were listening, by repeating what they have said and acknowledging how they must be feeling.

When a leader listens, responds with empathy and then follows up with statements like, “I understand your concern about what this means for our team, and I share your concern. Let me tell you what went into making the decision,” they are sharing what’s on their mind as well as providing the rationale for why the decision was made.

2. Don’t Hide Away from Mistakes

One of the mistakes leaders make is assuming their teams will trust them more if they appear to be perfect, without making any mistakes. They fear that vulnerability or imperfection will be perceived as weakness and lacking trust. However, research has shown that when leaders regularly display vulnerability, their employees are 5.3X more likely to trust them.

The key to acknowledging your failures as a leader, is to be mindful of your behaviour when you fail. Offering a simple, genuine apology and accepting you made a mistake goes a long way in building trust with your team. It shows that sometimes it is okay to make mistakes and sets an example for others to own their mistakes and learn from them.

Vulnerability is more that admitting when you are wrong. It’s also being able to admit when you don’t know the answer. When facing a challenge or a problem, leaders can play a vital role in driving innovation by actively involving their team members. This spirit or collaboration not only builds trust but empowers individuals to share their own ideas and opinions and become more invested in the company goals and values by fostering a sense of ownership and commitment. When partnered with competency vulnerability enables people to showcase how they are learning, and how things are improving.

3. Wellbeing Comes First

When times are as uncertain as they are now, don’t under-estimate the effect of ‘checking in’. It doesn’t take long to ask a few questions to understand the individuals in your team, ask about their families. Taking a minute to ask how they are shows care about an employee’s wellbeing and builds trust between leader and individual. This in turn can can help reduce employee turnover.

Ask employees about their mental and physical wellbeing, as well as how things are outside of work – if you don’t, you are neglecting life aspects that can have a huge impact on their performance, and the ability for the business to run at its best.

4. Individual Success Should Be Celebrated

It’s not a surprise that individuals who receive regular recognition and praise increase their individual productivity and are more likely to stay with their organisation. Additionally, those within customer facing roles are more likely to receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers, and those in practical roles have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job.

But it’s no use giving praise for the sake of it. To truly build workplace trust, any recognition needs to be specific and sincere. People need to believe in the feedback and believe in themselves for trust to grow.

Fostering a culture of trust is a crucial, yet often overlooked, skill for leaders particularly in moments of uncertainty and heightened external pressures. Trust has been proven to enable teams to navigate challenges, setbacks, and changes more effectively. Trusted leaders can inspire confidence, provide direction, and rally teams to overcome obstacles and capitalise on opportunities. By cultivating trust among colleagues, leaders can be the catalyst to a supportive and empowering atmosphere where individuals flourish, and innovation thrives.

Director for the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Research at DDI

Stephanie Neal, M.A., leads DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER) where she and her team manage strategic market research and trend studies on leadership in the workplace.

With more than 15 years of experience working with companies to define and address critical business challenges, Stephanie blends both an in-depth analytical and creative approach to help companies better inform their decisions and improve people and business outcomes

Stephanie is the co-author of several industry-leading research reports, including Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn't She? A Global Study of Businesswomen and Mentoring and DDI's Global Leadership Forecast, a major trend research study providing deep and actionable insights on how organisations can optimise their management of leadership talent in alignment with strategic priorities.