Societal, institutional and organizational trust is at an all-time low. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer found that political unrest, a global pandemic and years of government and corporate scandals have eroded people’s trust in leaders worldwide. The survey, which collected data from more than 33,000 respondents in 28 countries, revealed that a majority of respondents believe that government and business leaders are purposefully misleading people by saying things that are not true. In addition, because 84% of employees are concerned about losing their jobs, workers will continue to be guarded about their status and performance compared to their colleagues.

Additionally, Forbes predicted that a major leadership challenge will be the “continued erosion of trust in societal institutions, and a weakening of the principles that sustain those institutions.” Within the world of learning development (L&D), we have seen an increase in miscommunications arise from blended and work-from-home environments.

This lack of trust is bad news for organizations everywhere. In his research on the neuroscience of trust, Paul J. Zak found that employees in high-trust organizations are 50% more productive, report 74% less stress and have 106% more energy at work compared to their low-trust counterparts. They also report 76% more engagement, 40% less burnout and take 13% fewer sick days. It is clear that leaders at any level should make building (or rebuilding) trust a priority in the year to come.

The Elements of Trust

At its core, leadership is a relationship. There is no leader if there is no one willing to follow. Leaders must create positive relationships and connect others around a common purpose — and the foundation of any successful relationship is mutual trust. If today’s leaders want to foster trust with employees and other stakeholders, they must understand the elements of trust and the behaviors that underlie trusting relationships:

  • Reliability: Business leaders must create a reliable and predictable experience for their customers, employees and other stakeholders. To do this, they must set effective boundaries and clear expectations about how work gets done, what professional behavior looks like and how conflicts will be resolved. These expectations must be communicated clearly, and put into daily practice. Misunderstandings about what is expected can quickly erode trust in any relationship.
  • Transparency: When mistakes are made, it is vital to acknowledge them openly and honestly and communicate what will be done to correct the situation. Leaders should create an environment that encourages their team to handle their mistakes the same way, rather than hiding or being dishonest about a problem.
  • Integrity: To build trust, leaders must practice honesty and live their stated values. Corporate scandals, reports of tax evasion and illegal activities by leaders of major companies have eroded the public’s trust in business leadership. The integrity of an organization affects customers and workers alike. Leaders must demonstrate a commitment to honesty and reliability in all areas of their organizations — from accounting policies to human resources. To demonstrate integrity to internal and external customers, leaders should keep privacy concerns a top priority. Recent data breaches of well-known organizations have increased customer concerns about their safety, further eroding trust in companies they once relied on for goods and services.
  • Vulnerability: Trust requires vulnerability. Leaders must be willing to ask for help when they need it and not judge others when they need support. Creating an atmosphere where people feel allowed to be human and fallible is essential to a trusting environment. In the face of the many challenges of the last two years, vulnerability means embracing difficult conversations. Some leaders mistake vulnerability for weakness, but as author and lecturer, Brene Brown explains, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.”

The Skills Leaders Need Now

To rebuild trust in institutions and organizations, leaders must embrace three essential skills:

Emotional Intelligence

Often thought of as a “soft skill,” emotional intelligence is now an essential skill for leaders at any level. The components of emotional intelligence, like self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and empathy, have become increasingly important as people navigate the stress of conducting business throughout the global pandemic. Customers, employees and leaders alike are experiencing high levels of stress, difficult working conditions and unprecedented amounts of uncertainty. Leaders must demonstrate the ability to manage their emotions and handle stressful situations while remaining aware of how their words and behaviors impact those around them.

To be seen as trustworthy, leaders must model self-awareness and emotional stability even in times of conflict or tension. Emotionally intelligent leaders create an atmosphere of psychological safety that allows team members to ask questions, speak up about problems and try new things without fear of repercussions.

Fortunately, emotional intelligence is a skill that can be learned and strengthened through intentional practice. Developing emotional intelligence improves the quality of both personal and professional relationships and can benefit employees at any stage of their career.

Effective Communication

Less than half of employees report that they are well informed about their organization’s goals and strategies. Now more than ever, uncertainty about job security and organizational strategy is causing stress for workers. When there is an absence of information, people often jump to the worst conclusion, leading to reduced trust in the organization and increased turnover.

Ongoing communication and access to information is the best way to reassure employees. Transparency about good and bad news is vital to creating a trusting relationship with internal and external stakeholders. Leaders should not avoid discussing issues like a tough financial quarter or a need to reduce hours of operation due to slowing business or lack of available staff. Instead, they should be clear about the circumstances and share the plan for moving forward.

Effective communication can be challenging in an increasingly virtual workplace. Andy Bounds, author and communication expert, recommends sharing complex information verbally first, then following up with a summary by email. It is also more important than ever to remember that communication is a two-way interaction. Building a trusting relationship requires listening as much as, if not more than, speaking. Miscommunication is easy by text, email or chat, so be sure the recipient has received and understood your message. Difficult conversations should be face-to-face if possible, so it is easier to pick up on non-verbal cues that indicate if the other party understands the information and how they might feel about it.

A Lifelong Learning Mindset

John F. Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Not only should leaders embrace lifelong learning, but they should invest in the development of their employees as well. High-trust organizations emphasize a growth mindset and encourage staff to learn new things.

Managers who mentor their direct reports and help them grow personally and professionally see higher employee engagement and lower turnover rates. Providing opportunities for learning and development demonstrates a commitment to the employee’s well-being as a whole person, which is key to building positive and trusting relationships.

Learning new skills as a team is also a great way to improve relationships and get to know each other. Embracing lifelong learning also demonstrates vulnerability, as it requires admitting there is always more to learn. Creating a safe space for teams to learn new skills and apply them in real-world situations benefits the entire organization.

Moving Forward

The global pandemic and resulting economic and political conditions caused disruptions across many industries, requiring layoffs, reduced hours and new demands on workers. While many of these circumstances were out of the control of CEOs and managers, it is their job to restore trust in their organizations to help employees feel secure, and customers feel safe doing business. It takes time and consistency to build trust and can be difficult to repair once it is broken.

David Brooks, author of The Road to Character, tells us that “trust can be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts — by the outrageous gesture of extending vulnerability in a world that is mean, by proffering faith in other people when that faith may not be returned.” The need for stronger, more ethical leadership is clear — and the time for action is now. Restoring public confidence in leadership begins with each leader’s commitment to embracing and demonstrating the key elements of trust in all aspects of their life.