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If you’re in a leadership role in the modern workplace, you probably know the feeling: you’re balancing the larger strategic initiatives (and imperatives) of the company with the day-to-day concerns of your workforce. You’re responsible and accountable to big goals while also relying on your team to execute the vision. You’re not always sure of the right answer, and yet you want your team to believe in your leadership abilities and trust your guidance. You want to empathize with each team member regularly, but the days seem to fill up too quickly with tasks and meetings, making human connection harder. You want your team to trust you, but that’s not always easy.

You’re not alone. In this article, we’ll consider some key emotional intelligence capacities that you can use to build trust on your team, while also improving the experience of your employees. (Who doesn’t love a good win-win scenario?)

What does a high-trust workplace look like?

Frei & Morriss (2020) write in Harvard Business Review that trust at work can be visualized as a triangle. The three components in their model are: 

  1. Authenticity (experiencing the real you)
  2. Empathy (believing that you understand and care about me) 
  3. Logic (I trust you to execute on what you promise in an intelligent way).

When trust goes wrong, the researchers note, it can be traced to a failure in one of these points. 

To visualize these dynamics, bring to mind the best leader you’ve ever worked with. You likely can recall instances of these traits: 

  1. You felt you knew them as a human and not just as a set of work tasks.
  2. They showed that they cared about you, asking about what’s important in your life and taking an interest in your career goals and development.
  3. You knew that they would generally perform their duties with good judgment, and they were consistent with delivering on what they promised.

 

So how can you, as a leader, build the same experience for your employees? Before we get into practices, let’s take a step back and understand why leadership trust is so crucial in our modern workplace.

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Why should leaders focus on building trust? 

Let’s be honest: today’s leaders have no shortage of initiatives to implement and expectations to manage. In an environment where leaders must choose carefully where to place their focus, why should you focus on trust?

Trust improves employee engagement and productivity

The connection between trust and positive business outcomes has been well established over the past few years, with numerous studies and statistics underscoring its significance. Some highlights from the research of Paul J. Zak (Harvard Business Review, 2017) shows that employees at high-trust companies demonstrate:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 29% more life satisfaction
  • 40% less burnout


Improvements in employee experience positively impact the well-being of your team, both in the office and in their lives outside of work. But these statistics also point toward organizational efficiencies–employees who are more productive, absent less, and more engaged can produce higher quality, more innovative solutions to complex problems. 

Trust improves financial performance

How does trust translate into revenue? the pragmatic leader might wonder.

Beyond the realm of employee productivity and engagement, research has established a link between financial performance and high levels of trust in leadership. One study by Interaction Associates in 2015 found that companies with higher trust are 2.5 times more likely to be high-performing revenue organizations. This statistic underscores the direct correlation between trust and financial success, suggesting that trust is not just a human resources issue but a critical business strategy.

Current challenges to leadership trust

Research reveals trust in leadership is low

Despite the importance of leadership trust to business success, recent research indicates a concerning trend: trust in leadership is low. Relevant recent findings include:

  • Gallup reports a mere 21% of employees strongly agree that they trust their company's leadership. 
  • Similarly, the DDI Leadership Forecast for 2023 found that only 32% of employees strongly agree that they trust leadership to do what's right. 

What is your reaction to seeing this data? If it’s discouraging or surprising, you’re not alone. In fact, Reichheld & Dunlop (2022) have found that most employers significantly overestimate the trust that their employees have in them: by as much as 40%.

Change management requires trust

As a leader, you might also be thinking about the big initiatives you’re responsible for executing in the coming year. To successfully manage change (examples like AI transformation and Agile transformation come to mind), you’ll need a collaborative, productive, and engaged workforce who ultimately trust in the direction you provide. 

Research has shown that a lack of leadership trust can slow business operation via its influence on two important factors: speed and cost. Covey & Conant (2016) note that “When trust goes down (in a relationship, on a team, in an organization, or with a partner or customer), speed goes down and cost goes up . . . The inverse is equally true: when trust goes up, cost goes down, and speed goes up resulting in a ‘high-trust dividend.’”

Within this realization lies an opportunity for forward-thinking companies: invest in leadership trust and empower both your employees and your most important business initiatives.

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4 Human-Centric Skills that Build Trust at Work

How do you as a leader take all this theoretical knowledge and transform it into practical expertise? One of the keys is to practice authenticity as a leader, showing your team that you’re human and on the path of learning and growth right alongside them. Consider how you might share authentically as you read over the following practices, rooted in mindfulness-based emotional intelligence. 

(1) Take steps to reduce stress

Stress reduction at first might not be an intuitive step toward building trust, but a closer examination of the neuroscience of trust helps explain why it’s crucial. 

In a series of experiments focusing on the relationship between the hormone oxytocin and trust between humans, Zak (2017) discovered that higher levels of oxytocin predict greater relational trust. When participants in the research were (safely) administered oxytocin, they were more likely to trust and respond generously to others based on that trust. 

So why reduce stress? Because stress is a well-known inhibitor to oxytocin. This makes practical sense and you might be able to relate: when you’re being pinged on chat as you hurry to finish an important report and a colleague drops by your office, are you at your best in terms of interpersonal communication?

Try this: Take a minute to arrive. Pause before you begin a meeting or group activity and invite everyone to take 1-minute to focus attention on the breath, allowing the body and mind to settle and focus on what you are about to begin.

(2) Take an active interest in your team members

Frei and Morriss (2020) note that empathy is a key pillar to establishing trust at work. In their formulation, empathy is defined as “I believe you care about me and my success.” 

While outdated models of leadership center the leader, this more evolved understanding clearly shows that a leader’s impact has more to do with how they turn the focus outward, to their employees. 

Especially in a hybrid environment where we often only see floating heads against fake backgrounds, it’s easy to forget that humans are, well, human.

Try this: Spotlight an employee at a team meeting. Set aside a few minutes to allow your team members to share about themselves more fully in a way of their choosing. Prompts might include sharing about their favorite place to visit on vacation, what they’re reading or watching, or even what’s bringing them gratitude and joy recently. You can rotate turns so that this exercise only takes a few minutes each week.

(3) Focus

It’s hard to demonstrate empathy if you’re not paying attention to the people around you. And while this might seem obvious, consider how our modern working environment sets us up to be distracted while others are speaking:

A ping that goes off, prompting you to change your focus to another task (and sometimes revealing that little shake on your camera that indicates that you’re typing furiously rather than listening intently). You’re in your sixth meeting of the day with a big deadline looming, and so you figure you can multitask.

These scenarios become even more common in our hybrid working environment and can result in leaders missing out on important but subtle emotional and behavioral cues from team members. 

Try this: Try to schedule your meetings with at least five minute breaks in between. Take a few minutes to care for your needs and then make a habit of putting your phone away, minimizing your browser windows, and turning off notifications. Allow yourself to be fully present to your team members, knowing that this awareness can lead to precious insights that help generate trust. 

(4) Highlight your team’s accomplishments and honor the challenges.

While recognizing excellence is known to increase trust, Zak (2017) reports that after collecting data from workers across the country, it was one of the least practiced trust-building behaviors among US companies. Consider this your opportunity to build empathy as a leader while also gaining a competitive advantage in your management skills. 

Try this: Open up some time at group meetings to do a round of “Apples and Onions”, a practice we implement at most of our team meetings at SIY Global! Team members can share appreciation for their colleagues or recent wins (apples), and they can also share and gain support around challenges (onions). Logistically you can ask team members who want to share to put their names in the group chat and we go in that order, closing the round after a few minutes. 

None of these practices work very well without a foundation of self-awareness. Building self-awareness as a leader takes time and practice, but luckily it’s a skill you can improve. 

We’re here to help

If you’d like to take these principles of leadership trust from theoretical facts to practical habits, we’re here to help. Join us for a public program to deepen your emotional intelligence skills or check out our 2-day leadership retreat: The Trust Opportunity. In this dedicated time, you and fellow leaders will be guided in practical and science-based ways to reflect on and improve your ability to inspire trust in your team.

Sources and further reading:

Covey & Conant. “The connection between employee trust and financial performance.” Harvard Business Review, 2016.

Frei & Morriss. “Begin with trust.” Harvard Business Review, 2020.

Reichheld & Dunlop. The Four Factors of Trust: How Organizations Can Create Lifelong Loyalty. Wiley, 2022.

Zak, Paul J. “The neuroscience of trust.” Harvard Business Review, 2017. 

Zak, Paul J.  The Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies. AMACOM, 2017.