Trust in the workplace: It’s time for action, not words

17 Jun 2020 By Advertising feature

A recent People Management Insight webinar discussed how trust has evolved in the new world of virtual work and what the future looks like for us all

We’ve all learned a lot about trust over the past few months. We’ve had to trust our leaders that they have a crisis plan, trust our workforce that they’ll be productive while remote, and trust that our organisations have the right technologies in place that will serve the critical needs of employees and customers alike.

Like many things, trust has come under scrutiny as situations reach extremities. But is this a temporary shift or a more profound change in attitude – and, in fact, culture? 

In a recent People Management Insight webinar, David Morgan, international HR director at Kronos; Veronica Hope Hailey, professor of management studies and vice president of the University of Bath; Megan Reitz, professor of leadership and dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education; and Jenny Roper, editor of People Management magazine, discussed how trust in the workplace has changed during the current climate, what that means for us all and what HR must do next.

How do we define trust in the workplace?

“Trust is subjective,” said Reitz. “It’s navigated and negotiated during relationships. And it’s also socially constructed. In other words, trust is situated in a context. How you sense, feel and experience trust depends on your history. It depends on what culture you’ve been brought up in. It depends on what’s going on in the world right now.

“All this makes it difficult to measure within organisations. But one way that I have a lens in on trust is by examining the conversational habits of employees. My technique is that I ask the question: ‘What happens when you speak up around here?’ And that’s a fascinating question that brings in organisational stories and experiences that really shine a light on whether an employee feels free to speak up and whether they feel anything will happen if they do.” 

Hope Hailey added that trust is also about making yourself vulnerable to an individual or organisation and is something that the vast majority of the workforce is experiencing during these unprecedented times.

“It means you’re willing to take a risk. To make yourself vulnerable to someone else or to your company because you believe that person or organisation has good intentions towards you. And that’s incredibly important at the moment – we are all experiencing levels of vulnerability and uncertainty. We are literally living through change and that means we are looking towards those that we trust more than ever. We all look to those that we believe will act with predictability, integrity and to those who have a certain level of benevolence. And we also need to believe that they’re competent enough to lead us through this change,” said Hope Hailey.   

And from an organisation’s perspective, Morgan said: “The things that are important to us is the ability to manage ambiguity, crisis, change… and our ability to make good business decisions. And we know that we can only achieve that if we have an engaged workforce who are motivated and who trust that we will take them seriously.”

“The challenge is that if you’re a global organisation with 12,000 employees and 40,000 clients, how do you make sure there’s a degree of consistency. And I don’t think there’s a magic answer, but we try to do it by looking at those moments of truth. How do people get rewarded? How do people get promoted? Who gets to stay around here?  

“We talk a lot about our aspirations that we want to be a great place to work and we put a lot of effort into talking to people at a local level, as well as a global level, about how it feels for them to be in our organisation. We have confidential surveys four or five times a year to get a sense of whether our people feel like they’re being respected, are we doing the right things and is there the right degree of humility? And we do something with the results. An old boss of my used to say, 'I trust actions, not words’.”

What have the current crises taught us about trust?

It would be impossible to talk about trust in the current climate without discussing the impact of coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Your true colours come out in a crisis,” said Reitz. Organisations shout about values but it’s not until it comes to a crisis that you see whether they meant it or not. When we’re talking about trust and transparency, you’ve also got to talk about power, status and authority. Companies are saying 'we’re all in this together' and 'this is a leveller', but it’s fairly obvious that no, we’re not, and no, it isn’t, and inequalities have really become quite apparent. So, how you talk compared to how you act is very much in the spotlight.”

This is new territory for many leaders and organisations, suggested Roper. Most businesses tend to take a neutral stance on conflicts but now might be another turning point where employees and consumers won’t be happy with that.

“How we deal with these scenarios will be remembered for a long time,” said Morgan. “During a recent HR directors network meeting, I was taken by a colleague of mine who said that he is reviewing the leadership development training we have been doing because all those people we thought were our best leaders have been the least capable when it’s come to handling the various issues we’ve been dealing with. So we need to use this time to gain evidence-based insight and observations of potential future leaders.

“And in terms of the Black Lives Matter situation, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I would class myself as being open minded and understanding of these issues, but the reality is I don’t understand. The first thing our organisation said at a very senior level was that we have a lot to learn here, to learn how to support our black colleagues and for us to understand what it’s really like for them to be a part of our organisation and the society that we live in.”

Roper responded, “It’s great to hear large organisations listening and displaying a lot of humility and the importance of dialogue to engendering trust and engagement in the workforce. And trying to make sure you’re getting stuff right as much as you can as a continuous fluid process.”

“When it comes to Black Lives Matter, it’s a case of trying to repair trust where it’s been lost. This has been an issue for a long period of time and varies depending on the different societies and their histories,” added Hope Hailey. “Leaders have to take responsibility for any errors they have made in the past and they have to apologise for those past errors. And the most important thing is that they express compassion for those that they have wronged in any way. 

“These are some of the first steps in repairing trust… And how employers respond is going to illustrate whether they are willing to step up and be leaders, not just of their own organisation, but of leaders of society as well.”

Where have all the leaders gone?

There seems to have been a sense of a general lack of leadership during this time of crisis so why have their messages of guidance been lost in translation?

“What has struck me in my research over the past five years is leadership teams within organisations saying to me that their employees need to speak up more. But what organisations need to understand is that being able to speak up and trust is relationable, so it depends whether there is a culture of psychological safety,” said Reitz. “Whether those in the perceived positions of power are listening and skillfully inviting people to speak up. So my advice to leadership teams is that there is a load more work than you realise in order to develop trust in your team and your organisation. It’s a constant journey of awareness building and enquiry.”

Watch the webinar session in full

If you would like to learn more about Kronos and how its workforce management and human capital management solutions help build trust through fairness and employee engagement, visit

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