Two years ago, I worked with a CEO whose once-thriving tech firm was in crisis. In its heyday, it was celebrated as a haven for young tech enthusiasts and forward thinkers. It was known for its open floor plan, bean bag brainstorming sessions, unlimited snacks, and commitment to innovation.
However, as the company grew and diversified its portfolio, it saw a mix of generations at the workplace. Young coders worked with industry veterans who had been with the company since its floppy disk days. The leadership, recognizing the need for a more structured approach, introduced new management software to monitor task completion, working hours, and keystroke activities. The new system was introduced with no warning and little to no training.
Do you see where this is going?
The younger employees, having grown up in an era of personal data breaches and Big Tech overreach, felt their privacy was threatened. They missed the freedom they once felt and began questioning the company’s commitment to its open culture. Meanwhile, the older employees felt overwhelmed by the rapid technological changes. Many struggled to adapt to the software and thought it was an implicit message that their methods and skills needed to be updated.
The atmosphere grew tense with the leadership’s need for more transparent communication about the reasons behind the software introduction and other changes. Collaboration dwindled, and many young and old employees sought job opportunities elsewhere. A once-thriving company culture based on trust, innovation, and mutual respect was now riddled with suspicion, disconnect, and resentment.
This challenge isn’t unique to this company. But it illustrates that with the speed at which technology and generational values shift, trust must emerge as the cornerstone to maintain and improve company culture in the modern workplace.
When trust erodes, the pillars of the workplace start to crumble.
Great Place to Work research confirms this. The organization has studied workplace culture for more than 30 years and found that high-trust settings, like those found in top companies in Chicago, Texas, New York, and the Bay Area, have been shown to bolster productivity and agility. Their research proves that trust between employees and leaders is the foundation of a great employee experience.
To make trust the cornerstone of your workplace, we’ll look at the following:
- Is there a trust crisis? How did we get here?
- What steps can you take to restore trust in your workplace?
- What role do HR and managers play in restoring trust?
The trust crisis
Trust in the professional realm has been seriously tested in the past few years. We have seen numerous instances where companies made headlines for the wrong reasons. The past has scarred employees’ trust in their organizations, from data breaches compromising personal information to companies sidestepping ethical boundaries for profit. Numerous events have emerged, stirring anxiety among clients and staff. When trust is not present, it results in internal turmoil, leading to widespread employee dissatisfaction and departures due to less-than-transparent decisions. These situations spotlight the trust deficit that has become common in today’s work environments.
The culprits behind dwindling trust
Restoring trust requires deliberate effort, clear communication, consistency in actions, and a commitment to transparency and ethical conduct. Leaders and managers need to recognize these challenges and actively work toward creating an environment where trust can thrive. Many factors play into the degradation of trust. To create, build, or restore trust, we must be willing to acknowledge what those factors might be and act, such as:
- Generational differences. As the workplace becomes more diverse in terms of age, race, and gender, there’s a potential clash in values, expectations, and ways of working. If managed effectively, these differences can maintain trust.
- Lack of transparency. Companies that lack transparency in decision-making, especially during change or crisis, may foster suspicion or skepticism among their employees.
- Remote work challenges. With the rise of remote work, maintaining a company culture and ensuring employees feel connected and valued can be challenging. The lack of face-to-face interactions can sometimes make building and maintaining trust harder.
To nurture trust, your employees must feel like they are a part of something bigger than revenue figures. Rapid technological advancements, while beneficial, can sometimes alienate workforce segments if not introduced with transparency. Corporate decisions driven solely by profit motives without considering human factors often lead to discontent.
The pertinent question we need to address is: Are we actively engaging and communicating with our employees, ensuring they’re in the loop and their concerns are addressed?
Trust in the workplace speaks multiple languages. It’s about open communication, where feedback is encouraged and acted upon. It’s seen when companies invest in their employees’ growth and well-being. Data consistently shows that companies with high levels of trust outperform their counterparts. As Michael C. Bush, CEO of Great Place To Work, aptly says, “Listening isn’t merely hearing. It’s about understanding and acting.”
Data consistently shows that companies with high levels of trust outperform their counterparts.
Restoring trust: speaking a new workplace language
When I was brought in to help coach the tech CEO and some of his C-suite executives on how to have difficult conversations in the workplace, we started with the idea of speaking a new language in the workplace: the language of trust.
Speaking a new language of trust in the workplace requires a paradigm shift in how we communicate, act, and establish systems. With trust being a fundamental pillar of any thriving organization, it’s crucial to assess and reinforce it constantly. To speak this new language and mend trust when it’s been broken, Great Place To Work research identifies three core pillars:
1. Transparency and open communication (credibility):
In the digital age, where information is at our fingertips, hiding or withholding information is often counterproductive. Employees value being in the loop and understanding the “why” behind decisions. We must foster an environment where leaders communicate regularly about company changes, goals, and challenges—for example, using town hall meetings, regular updates, and open-door policies. Encourage feedback and genuinely act on it. When mistakes happen, acknowledge them openly and discuss corrective measures.
2. Consistency in actions and policies (fairness):
Trust erodes when there’s a mismatch between what’s said and what’s done. Consistency in actions reassures employees that fairness is maintained, and everyone is held to the same standard. They are ensuring that policies are applied uniformly. Avoid favoritism and ensure promotions, rewards, and recognitions are based on merit. Regularly review and update company policies to ensure they align with the company’s core values and evolving needs. Training programs can ensure all managers understand and uphold these principles.
3. Empathy and active listening (respect):
In our fast-paced workday, taking a moment to listen genuinely can make all the difference. Active listening shows respect, understanding, and a willingness to collaborate. It can defuse tensions and provide deeper insights into underlying issues. We must train leaders in active listening techniques. Promote a culture where feedback is sought from surveys and one-on-one conversations. When an employee voices their concerns, validate their feelings, and work collaboratively toward a solution. Regularly schedule check-ins and foster an environment where every team member feels heard and valued.
What can HR leaders and managers do?
Trust is a global language. By focusing on openness, fairness, and genuine understanding, HR leaders and managers can rebuild trust in the workplace:
- Communicate regularly about company changes, goals, and challenges.
- Encourage feedback and act on it.
- Acknowledge mistakes.
- Ensure promotions, rewards, and recognitions are based on merit.
- Update company policies to ensure they align with your core values.
- Implement training programs for managers.
- Train leaders in active listening.
- Schedule regular check-ins.
By focusing on transparency, consistency, and empathy, the CEO I met with was able to mend broken trust and create a robust culture that drives innovation, loyalty, and success.
In today’s modern workplace, trust isn’t optional; it’s mandatory.