CEOs and employees: A matter of trust

By March 16, 2017 Blog No Comments

Few things are as important in business as trust. In ideal scenarios, clients should be able to trust that the product or service is of high quality, and employees would trust the CEO for the vision and direction of the company. 

A recent study shows that trust in CEOs is lacking. Lucy Handley reports on this for CNBC, examining the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer. The survey included 33,000 people in 28 countries, and just 37 percent said that CEOs are “credible or very credible as spokespeople,” Handley writes. That’s a 12 percent decrease from the previous year, and the lowest since 2001, when the survey began.

“There is a crisis of public trust in business, institutions, government and non-governmental organizations, according to a global report by public relations agency Edelman,” Handley writes.

Trust is of course earned, and not automatically given. Here are several ways for CEOs to earn trust within their companies.

Communication

This is an essential part of earning trust, the ability to openly communicate with employees, including stating clear goals and active listening. Peer-to-peer communication has taken a greater importance as well, Handley writes, in regards to the Edelman trust survey:

“Employees should be more of a focus in business, the report also suggests. General staff are now seen by the public as the most trusted spokespeople to communicate industry views, innovation efforts and business practices, ahead of the CEO, senior executives and others, according to the report. Thirty-eight percent trust employees to communicate financial earnings and operational performance, versus 20 percent who trust the CEO, for example.”

As Edelman CEO Richard Edelman notes in the story: “Companies talk to their employees last, and that is a mistake, that’s crazy. If you look at the data, the CEO is half as credible on all subjects as the employees.”

Connect with employees

Here’s an easier-said-than-done concept, but an important one. There is significant effort required in truly connecting with employees, and it can’t be done in just occasional meetings or memos from the top. Chris Oberbeck, CEO of Saratoga Investment Corp., explores this in a story for Entrepreneur.

“Most times, connecting with your employees may require that you disconnect,” he writes. “Get away from emails and technology, and use face-to-face interactions to help build trust. Nothing builds confidence as much as shaking someone’s hand or looking them in the eye. As a CEO, making real connections may be as simple as demystifying yourself to your employees, many of whom may never have met you. Company-wide events like team-building retreats and company parties are great for morale. Get to know your team as much as possible and, most importantly, let them get to know you.”

Transparency

We’ve noted the importance of transparency, and it certainly applies in building trust with employees. By maintaining an open and highly communicative approach, a CEO allows staff members to better understand the company vision and direction. In a Fox Business story about Glassdoor’s highest-rated CEOs, Rami Rahim of Juniper Networks discusses the benefits of transparency.

“As I thought about the kind of leader I wanted to be, I started with our company’s core values,” the CEO says. “Trust is one of those values — but it’s the most tenuous of all values because once it’s lost, it’s difficult to regain. So I have been consistent in my resolve to be completely transparent with our team. When things are going well, we celebrate. But when things don’t go as planned, we acknowledge it. We are ruthless in our examination of root causes for failure. And we clearly communicate what we want our team to do to course-correct and get back on track. Employees tell us that they really appreciate that kind of authenticity and transparency.” 

Keep promises

A sure-fire way to lose employee trust is to pledge specific action or progress, ask for their support on this vision, and then fail to follow through. As Oberbeck writes, “If you promise something to your employees, deliver.” 

“You will demolish your reputation very quickly if you use statements loosely,” he writes. “What you say and how you say it are just as important as following through with those statements. As a leader, I have to be exact in what I say and how I follow through. If I fail to do that, I fail to keep my promises, which presents me as untrustworthy. That is the worst position to be in with your employees and will ultimately create structural weaknesses in the foundation of everything else you teach them.”

Give credit, not blame

Employees want a CEO to stand up in difficult times and take responsibility for the company’s position. Similarly, they want their leaders to acknowledge their work in a real and thoughtful way. Tobias Fredberg writes about the approach taken by “higher-ambition CEOs,” those who have been involved in turning a business around, in a story for Harvard Business Review

“They see the willingness to accept personal responsibility — especially during tough times — as critical to winning the trust of employees and other stakeholders,” he explains. “Leaders, in their view, need the endurance and stamina to lead their organizations through thick and thin. They also need to contain the anxiety of their employees. A leader who spreads the blame, who fails to accept that he or she is ultimately the one in charge, increases the insecurity of their people and lessens the likelihood that they’ll take ownership of initiatives.”

Develop trust in others

A CEO may focus on gaining trust from employees but miss out on the crucial other side of it. They should put that emphasis back on themselves and make efforts to trust their employees in a significant way. As Oberbeck writes, “Trust is not a legal contract.” 

“You cannot expect a quid pro quo exchange from another person, especially in a corporate space,” he explains. “Instead of thinking of trust as something that can be negotiated, think of it as something you look for from others — in exchange for first putting it out there yourself.”

Fairness

How CEOs treat employees can go a long way toward developing trust. It’s important to be consistent in working relationships, and not to welcome some but ignore others. Sharon Zeev Poole writes about this for CEO Magazine.

“The quickest way to dwindle trust levels in the office is to play favorites with employees,” she says. “People see it. For example, if you only feed information to a particular employee or give a select few the most desirable assignments, everything you’ve done to build trust will be destabilized. Not only will people feel alienated, you’ll give them the sense of being an outsider, and if you’re not in their corner, how can they trust you to have their back?”