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Becky Norman


Managing Editor

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How to earn employee trust in your business


In the opening keynote of CIPD’s Annual Conference and Exhibition 2018, award-winning author, speaker and lecturer Rachel Botsman explored the value of trust in today’s society.

Opening up the 2018 CIPD conference, Rachel Botsman, author of ‘Who Can You Trust’ and ‘What’s Mine is Yours’, explored how little we really know about trust, how bad we are at making trust-based decisions and why organisations have got it so wrong when it comes to ‘building trust’.

It’s all about context

If a close friend or family member were to ask you ‘Do you trust me?’ you would likely respond with a yes (hopefully) or a no.

However, we must think about trust contextually, Botsman highlighted in her session. We must ask what we are trusting them to do.

‘Do you trust me…to cut your hair?’ Your answer would likely depend on whether the person asking is a hairdresser or not. ‘Do you trust me…to fly a plane’ Yes, if you’re an experienced pilot, otherwise no. And in the workplace, ‘Do you trust me… to complete this project on time? Yes, if you’re a high-performing, motivated, dependable member of the team, but no if you’re an unreliable, low-performing team member.

The same applies for the trust of an employee in the business they work for. Employers need to bear in mind the context.

What are you trying to get your workforce to trust you with? To pay their salary on time each month? To develop a strategy that will ensure the business remains profitable? To adopt new technologies that will streamline processes and improve productivity? To provide them with professional development that will give them the skills and capabilities needed in the future workplace?

You may have earned trust in some of these areas (eg. after a few months of consistent pay a new-starter is likely to trust you to pay their salary), but be working on other areas.

It’s not uncommon for humans to read trust signals incorrectly, and this ‘trust gap’, as Botsman refers to it, can be extremely damaging.

Trust signals – why do we get them so wrong?

Alongside context, trust signals are used to assess whether or not to trust another person. These are “clues or symbols that we knowingly or unknowingly use to decide whether another person is trustworthy or not,” said Botsman.

In her session, she gave a personal example of her parents hiring a nanny called Doreen to look after her as a child. Doreen wore glasses, had a scottish accent and a salvation army badge – and these signalled to Botsman’s parents that they could trust her to look after their child.

Much to everyone’s surprise, it turned out that Doreen was a bank-robbing drug dealer – Botsman’s parents had hugely misjudged Doreen and put their trust in a bad person.

But how did they get this so wrong? It’s not uncommon for humans to read trust signals incorrectly, and this ‘trust gap’, as Botsman refers to it, can be extremely damaging: “The illusion of information is far more dangerous than ignorance when we’re making decisions around who to trust,” Botsman warned.

Trust is a continual process

We’re all familiar with the adage ‘Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.’ This indicates that trust is an ongoing, ever-changing process.

We may trust someone or some business one day, and lose our trust in them the next day, after discovering new information or witnessing dubious behaviour.

Botsman argued that employers make a common mistake when talking about trust: “It’s strange when organisations say they’re going to build more trust like they have control of it… you have to earn trust and this is a continual process.”

Technology and trust

Our technology-driven world has somewhat made us change our relationship with trust. “We’re living in a culture that is like trust on speed,” said Botsman.

We are so quick to trust new technology because it offers us efficiency and automation, which is so valuable in a fast-paced society. “But trust cannot be automated, it is a human feeling,” highlighted Botsman.

In businesses today, employees are having to deal with a lot of change. There’s an ever-increasing number of new technologies being developed and new products entering the market – and businesses are having to adopt an agile approach to remain relevant.

Trust is not gained through one big gesture, but is rather built in continuous small interactions and moments.

When we ask our employees to work with a new technology, product or team, or to adapt to ever-changing procedures and protocols, in each instance we are asking them to make what Botsman calls a ‘trust leap’. We are taking them away from what is known and placing them into the unknown.

Botsman argues that while humans are very good at taking trust leaps, we are having to take higher and farther leaps than ever before. For humans to be comfortable with the transition to uncertainty, they need to trust what is happening.

How can trust be earned?

So how can employers earn the trust of their workforce and enable employees to make the increasing number of trust leaps that are needed in an agile business?

Botsman believes that trust is not gained through one big gesture, but is rather built in continuous small interactions and moments.

A common misconception that employers seem to make is that greater transparency is key to developing a trustworthy organisation. It’s seen as ‘a magical tool for building trust in businesses’ said Botsman, ‘but if you need transparency then you’re giving up on trust.’

This does not mean that transparency is not valuable, but it is not the answer to earning trust.

When trying to obtain trust, Botsman argued that there are four elements to bear in mind. To briefly summarise, on the capability side there is competence and reliability. And on the character side there is benevolence and integrity, which are somewhat harder to measure.

But what is HR’s role in all of this? Botsman asserts that HR is a key player in facilitating the earning of trust in organisations through small interactions that can be scaled.

HR practitioners also need to be mindful that every new product, piece of technology or procedure that is rolled out requires employees to take a leap of trust, and so taking the time to ensure these new adoptions are the right decision is paramount.


2 Responses

  1. In my years providing service
    In my years providing service in a self storage facility, what I realise gains you the most respect amongst your employees, is when you’re willing to stand up for them when they are facing issues. As a head or manager of your department, you have to ensure them that they have portable skills, skills which you currently value because they are working for you. Otherwise they are going to leave in the droves…

  2. Trust works both ways and
    Trust works both ways and sometimes we might find it hard to accept that notion. We want people to trust us but at the same time, we are clearly having doubts towards the other party. This isn’t a healthy practice and we need to get rid of it before we are able to grasp the concept of how trust truly works successfully.

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Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman