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Chris Dyer

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Why building trust can improve employee engagement


In a world where a job for life no longer exists, staff need more subtle forms of motivation to improve their performance. Although a financial package is still a key factor, now it’s also about a company’s culture – is it built on a bond of trust?

Worker engagement: it’s that the elusive Holy Grail that every CEO, manager and HR exec seeks. It used to be exchanged by staff members for the promise of steady employment and a future pension, with a gold watch thrown in to show the company’s long-term appreciation. 

This type of delayed gratification worked, up to a point, when the future pay-off was certain enough to warrant the everyday sacrifice. But the economic forecast and people’s values have changed. Now, workers prioritise happiness in the short term over less likely, long-term stability.

However, according to the numbers compiled by Gallup, barely one-third of surveyed employees consider themselves engaged – that is, comfortable and happy doing what they do.

Those who are happy feel compelled to get behind a company and go the extra mile to do outstanding work. Once employees make this type of emotional commitment, companies see great benefits to workplace morale and their balance sheets.

So, what puts workers in this state of mind? It must be whatever is inside that elusive chalice.

Those who are happy feel compelled to get behind a company and go the extra mile to do outstanding work.

Is your business still relying on cash, investments, and benefits to make people happy? That’s not an accurate working of the equation. Certainly, without those things people are likely to be unhappy. But even with them, happiness, and the motivation that comes with it, is far from assured.

So we see even the most successful companies try to attract and placate workers with free meals, on-site gyms and recreational rooms, plus the staple year-end bonus.

Those things may make people happier – but they may not fully bridge the gap between job and personal satisfaction. To do that, you’ll have to put something else in that cup that people can’t see, but they can feel. It’s trust.

Trust builds engagement

In the employee/employer relationship, trust goes far beyond just being able to count on getting work done or to count on getting a pay check. It means standing up for the worker who learns from a mistake.

It means staying late to get a report out that may land the company a big account. Trust is a bond formed by actions that occur over time and it is mutual, or it does not exist.

Employees who feel trusted are empowered to get work done to their best ability. They know they’ll be supported in learning what they don’t know and in optimising what they know best.

Employees who feel trusted are empowered to get work done to their best ability.

They’ll be part of a team that works for each other, so they can work for the greater good. These milestones fulfill human needs for autonomy, mastery and purpose – the prerequisites for happiness identified by researchers.

Employers who are trusted enjoy the result of that emotional satisfaction. Individuals who are allowed to work in a way that is naturally easy or understandable are more efficient and effective than those who aren’t.

People who master innate talents or new skills gain the range to tackle complex projects. A group of these people who shares a significant purpose is much more powerful than one that doesn’t. So, trust engages employees, and engaged employees garner more trust in a perpetual cycle.

Why aren’t all workers engaged?

Let’s get back to the contract that exists between employers and employees. Contracts are based on agreements between both parties that are backed up by legal consequences.

You expect your workers to do x, y, and z every weekand they expect you to give them a salary, a pension and a few days off with pay each year. If one of you doesn’t pay, the agreement is either severed or one party has recourse to be paid back.

If you’ve already got this agreement, is trust implicit? Clearly, not. Employers use oversight, probation, demotion and other tactics to hold workers to account – not the gentlemen’s agreement of trust. 

Yet, you’ve got the document or the financial arrangement to ensure compliance. You’ve vetted your new recruits and have reasonable assurance that their previous good track record will continue with your company.

Why wouldn’t you trust people to do their jobs? But you give the impression that you do not if you micro-manage or use threats instead of rewards to encourage good performance.

No one performs well for someone whom they don’t trust.

Workers who must sign in and out for bathroom breaks or compete with peers for fear of losing their positions send the accompanying mistrust right back to management. Being treated like children or forced to prove their worth daily makes employees question the judgment and motives of their leaders.

No one performs well for someone whom they don’t trust. As the old saying goes, the threat of firing makes people work just hard enough not to get canned.

Therefore, signing a work agreement does not form a bond of trust. That takes time and effort on a personal level and it takes a reasonable operating structure that accommodates human needs. 

This is all on top of what’s required to actually get tasks done. This is where a culture of trust comes in and why it’s so important. Before we can put our talents to work we must have the means and the reason to do so.

How to find the Holy Grail

A focus on workplace culture will lead you in the right direction. As you put systems in place to create transparency, measure performance and acknowledge good work, you’ll naturally lay the foundation for trust. Here a few areas of opportunity within those business practices:


A practical goal of transparency is to provide workers the information needed to make informed decisions and to do their jobs well, so businesses establish good communication channels.

Happily, effective communication also builds trust. To strengthen that bond, open up the lines of discourse in your company. Let staff know that they are welcome and encouraged to talk to any team member who might help them with a task, problem or decision.

Making a personal connection will make it easier to discuss weightier issues.

Leaders, take the lead. Make yourself the company ‘greeter’. Instead of passing people in the hall, stop them, chat a moment. Get to know them, so you can continue the conversation at the next encounter. 

Take notes, if you have to. Making a personal connection will make it easier to discuss weightier issues and will demonstrate that your sincerity isn’t something you just take out at holiday parties. We trust people we can talk to. You can begin to engage employees one at time by communicating openly and honestly.


A uniform and objective system of measurement displays a commitment to fair play – a key element in a trusting relationship. Let your staff know that every employee’s annual review, pay scale and goal achievements are evaluated in the same way. Favouritism clouds trust and kills motivation.

Tie promotions, bonuses and salary increases to a quantifiable scale and make your people aware of it. You don’t have to share monetary amounts, but you do have to share an equitable system that shows everyone what success looks like in their roles.

Let your staff know that every employee’s annual review, pay scale and goal achievements are evaluated in the same way.

That way, everyone has a fair chance to use their skills and commitment to move ahead. Now you’re beginning to build trust at the group level.

Positive reinforcement

Fairness also comes into play when acknowledging good work and handling the inevitable mistakes. Instead of punishing good-faith errors, reward people who learn what not to do or who use mistakes as a motivator to invent new methods or solutions.

When employee performance exceeds expectations or drives the company forward in the market, acknowledge that. Top-down rewards from upper to lower management may trickle down to direct reports, but that’s not enough. 

Integrate a reward system that includes everyone by asking for peer-to-peer recognition as well. When every staff member feels included, you scatter the seeds of trust more widely. Then, the Holy Grail may really be what’s outside the cup, not in it.

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