Why Building a Culture of Trust Will Boost Employee Performance

Do your employees trust you? The brutal truth is probably not. It may not be fair, and you may not want to hear it, but chances are that previous leaders have poisoned the ground on which you're trying to grow a successful business. Make no mistake: Unless you and all of the leaders in your organization can gain the trust of your employees, performance will suffer. And considering how tough it is to survive in today's business environment, that's very bad news for your company.

Why is trust so pivotal? It's a matter of human nature: When employees don't trust their leaders, they don't feel safe. And when they don't feel safe, they don't take risks – and where no risk is taken, there is less innovation, less "going the extra mile," and therefore, very little unexpected upside.

Feeling safe is a primal human need. When that need isn't met, our natural response is to focus energy toward a showdown with the perceived threat. Without trust, people respond with distraction, fear and, at the extreme, paralysis. And that response is hidden inside "business" behaviors – sandbagging quotas, hedging on stretch goals, and avoiding accountability or commitment.


Leaders become trustworthy by building a track record of honesty, fairness and integrity. Cultivating this trust isn't just a moral issue; it's a practical one.

Trust is the currency you will need when the time comes for you to make unreasonable performance demands on your teams. And when you're in that tight spot, it's quite possible that the level of willingness your employees have to meet those demands could make or break your company.

Most employees have been hurt or disappointed, at some point in their careers, by the hand of power in an organization. That's why nine times out of 10, leaders are in "negative trust territory" before they make their first request of an employee to do something. Before a team can reach its full potential, leaders must act in ways that transcend employees' fears of organizational power.

The first step starts with you. As a leader, you must "go first" – and model trustworthiness for everyone else.

First, realize that being trustworthy doesn't mean you have to be a Boy Scout. History teaches us that some of the most trustworthy people can be harsh, tough or socially awkward – but their promises must be inviolate and their decisions fair.

As anachronistic as it may sound in the 21st century, men and women whose word is their honor, and who can be absolutely trusted to be fair, honest and forthright, are more likely to command the respect of others than, say, the nicest guy in the room. As long as you are fair, as long as you do what you say consistently, you will still be trusted.

Look for chances to reveal some vulnerability. We trust people we believe are real and also human (imperfect and flawed) – just like us. And that usually means allowing others to get a glimpse of our personal vulnerability – some authentic (not fabricated) weakness or fear or raw emotion that allows others to relate to us at the human level.

No matter how tempted you are, don't feed your employees bull. Tell the truth, match your actions with your words, and match those words with the truth we all see in the world: no spin, no fancy justifications or revisionist history – just tell the truth.

Strive to disclose the maximum amount of information appropriate to the situation. When you feel yourself starting to bend what you know is the truth or begin withholding the bare facts, find a way to stop, reformat your communication, and tell the truth.

Don't punish "good failures. "A" good failure" is a term used in Silicon Valley to describe a new business startup or mature company initiative that, by most measures, is well planned, well run and well organized – yet for reasons beyond its control (an unexpected competitive product, a change in the market or economy) it fails. In other words, "good failures" occur when you play well, but still lose. When they're punished, you instill a fear of risk-taking in your employees, and with that you stifle creativity and innovation. Instead, you should strive to create a "digital camera" culture: Hit the delete button on the current image, but keep striving for that one amazing photo.

Don't squelch the flow of "bad" news. Do you – or others under you – shoot the messengers who bring you "bad" news? If so, you can be certain that the messengers' priority is not bringing you the information you need: It's protecting their own hides. We must instill a confidence and a trust that leaders in the organization value the facts, the truth and the speed of delivery, and that messengers are valued, not shot.

Constantly tap into your "fairness conscience. "At the level of general principle, there is seldom any confusion about what fair looks like. Just ask yourself: Would most people see this as fair or unfair? You'll know the answer. If you treat your followers fairly, and do so consistently, you will set a pattern of behavior for the entire organization.


Don't take shortcuts. Every organization wants to succeed, but employees and leaders also face pressure to let the end justify the means. This pressure becomes especially acute when either victory or failure is in immediate sight. That's when the usual ethical and moral constraints are sometimes abandoned – always for good reasons, and always "just this once" – in the name of expediency. When employees see you breaking the "code" of organizational honor and integrity to which your company is supposed to adhere, they lose trust in you.

When employees see you breaking the "code" of organizational honor and integrity to which your company is supposed to adhere, they lose trust in you.

Separate the bad apples from the apples that just need a little direction. In my coaching practice, there are three failure modes that I will decline to coach: integrity, commitment, and chronic selfishness, that is, manipulating outcomes for individual gain at the expense of the larger opportunity. These are character traits, not matters of skill, practice, knowledge or experience.

Trustworthiness is never entirely pure. Everyone fails to achieve perfection. So the goal for a leader is to make those wrong choices as rarely as possible; admit them quickly, completely and with humility; fix them as quickly as you can; and make full recompense when you cannot.

Trust is the most powerful, and most fragile, asset in an organization, and it is almost exclusively created, or hampered, by the actions of the senior leader on the team.

John Hamm, who has been a CEO, board member and executive coach, also teaches leadership at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. He is the author of "Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership."