How to rebuild employee trust in the modern workplace

Once broken, trust can be hard to repair. It's up to HR to lead the way

How to rebuild employee trust in the modern workplace

Rebuilding trust in the workplace is a difficult task. Once communication has broken down or a colleague feels betrayed, it takes a lot of convincing to compel any employee to be faithful to their company. Often disputes arise between competitive employees trying to climb the corporate ladder, or have specific ideas for a project which they don’t agree on. Distrust can also happen if internal changes are happening resulting in job compromises, losses and even whole departments disappearing.

Restoring that trust is a time-consuming effort that involves all key players within the business – but above all, it fall directly into HR’s remit.

“When trust is breached, the opportunity to restore it will depend on whether it was an intentional deception or action that breached trust,” David Penglase, behaviour scientist, told HRD. “It is almost – if impossible - to rebuild trust, however, you have a higher likelihood of rebuilding if you Admit, own and be genuinely sorry for the mistake. Also, being collaborative and transparent about what actions will be completed to remedy the breach, helps enormously, as well as providing feedback on the progress of actions and results.”

Penglase states that trust is imperative within an immediate team and the broader office, as it enables individuals to concentrate on the task at hand, not worry about people talking behind their back, and generates more open-ended discussion, which can result in quicker solutions.

“Trust and more importantly, trustworthiness is important in an office because it impacts almost every measure of success in our professional and personal lives,” Penglase added. “Most if not all actions we carry out at the office will be impacted by one of the lenses of trust - self-trust, trust others and earn others trust.

“When people trust themselves, and each other, the evidence-based research shows creativity increases, productivity speeds up, profits are higher, employee engagement is enhanced, stress and absenteeism are decreased and the list goes on.

“Creating a work-team culture of trust starts with the leader demonstrating their trustworthiness through consistent behaviour evidencing a combination of character and competence. The leader then coaches her/his team individually and collectively on the three lenses of trust. The first being the confidence and control required for self-trust. The second is the courage and collaboration required to trust others and the third being the character, competence and consistency to earn others trust.”

What does trust mean?

Depending on your background trust can be automatically granted on every individual you meet or the other extreme of people having to earn trust through an elongated process.

With the latter, it can take a very long time to restore, and if you are a small business, it can create problems within the workplace. It doesn’t always take specific language or written words to destroy trust, symbolisms, witnessing of colleagues together or innuendo can lead to trust evaporating.

“When it comes to building trust, we need to work with people’s brains not against them,” Marie-Claire Ross, founder, Trustologie, said. “Trust is processed in the limbic brain, the part of the brain that has no capacity for language. We process whether we can trust someone through our emotions. We don’t trust others by what they say, it’s how they make us feel.  It’s their consistent actions that show that they care about our well-being that determine whether we feel we can or cannot trust them.

“You can’t talk your way into trust; you have to behave your way into it.”

Research has shown that the obsession with technology has taken away Gen Z’s ability to resonate with common body signals such as flirting, anger, indifference and intolerance. With so much time spent staring down at a screen, most people have forgotten how to look up and communicate face-to-face with people for any length of time.

“Today, it’s more important than ever that leaders know how to communicate both verbally and non-verbally to the part of the brain that manages trust,” Ross added. “The limbic brain that doesn’t understand language, but feelings. Our brains are designed to need lots of signalling. This requires learning techniques that signal to people that ‘together we can do this’.”

Ross believes that fostering safety; creating connection and stepping into a meaningful future are three important practices to emotionally engage employees that pull them into the achievement zone.

“There are three corresponding interactions when you communicate these three practices,” Ross added. “Meetings, visibility and accountability. The good news is that these three practices don’t take much time to deliver, it just takes practice and courage. And when you get them right, they provide a powerful shortcut to navigating the complexity of human behaviours and beliefs.

“If trust has been broken it can be restored but it takes a long time.  If you are talking about company culture, it requires removing dysfunctional leaders and replacing them with leaders who care about others. Then, systems need to be changed that reward trusted behaviours and send signals that people matter. Leaders need to spend time listening to employees and customers, apologising for past mistakes and then taking action.”

Rebuilding trust is not an easy task but is definitely achievable with a strong tactical plan that engages everyone affected.

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