Building Trust in Executives

Leanne Buehler, Ph.D., Principal Science and Innovation AdvisorLeadershipLeave a Comment


However, given that “trust” is such a big word that is often emotionally charged, we wanted to better understand how employees interpret the word “trust” and how it could be improved. We asked employees to tell us what senior leaders need to do more of to build trust. The results of this research are described below.



“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” is a common saying for a reason. In our study, employees indicated that communication is the number one way in which senior leaders could build trust.

Why is this so important? In the absence of information, it is human nature to fill in the blanks, and we often we do so with speculation that is far from positive. Getting a head of messaging (even if it is not positive) is important to staying ahead of the rumor mill.

Employees tell us they can handle bad news, it’s no news that creates doubt and uncertainty. 

“Communicate with more detail about each and every change that is happening at the organization and WHY.”
“Communicate to associates outside of a leadership role. Sometimes only communicating to only the senior person in a department diminishes the roles of others and hurts team morale.”


  • Leaders communicate once and assume the message was heard.

  • Leaders rely on one method of communication.

  • Leaders communicate one level down and then assume the message gets shared throughout the organization.

  • Leaders fail to communicate why decisions were made or what they mean for employees.


  • Ensure leaders have a clear understanding of key points to communicate before they talk to their teams.

  • Give leaders a deep enough understanding of decisions to be able to explain “why.”

  • Use a variety of communication channels and repeat key messages.

  • Focus on one or two key messages and then spot check with employees to make sure they were heard accurately.


Those who are closest to the work often have the best ideas for how to make improvements and yet, Leaders often fail to seek their input. Our research indicates that a major source of frustration occurs when leaders make decisions without a true understanding of how work really gets done and the implications of those decisions.

“Senior leaders may be seriously misinformed or heavily put themselves at a disadvantage if always only dealing with the top and never taking the time to interact with the little people.”

“Listen to the those of us in the field and let us have more input on ways to make our lives easier and better for both the customer and employees.”

  • Leaders are focused on the “external” world (e.g., customers, investors, the industry) and forget to stay in touch with employees.

  • Failure to get input from those that will be affected by decisions.

  • Saying “no” before fully considering an idea.

  • Forgetting to circle back with employees who shared ideas to explain what happened with their input.

  • Feeling pressure to have all the answers can result in making decisions without seeking input – listen, check for understanding, then respond.


  • Listening tour: Senior Leaders can benefit from structured time for listening to employees. Be sure to include all employees, which may mean visiting different locations or shifts. Ask employees what’s on their mind and how you can help.

  • Create a culture of “yes”: Rather than looking for reasons “why not,” focus on trying to say “yes” to employee requests whenever reasonably possible. That way, when you really do have to say “no,” employees will already trust that you fully considered the idea or decision.


There is no doubt that the schedules of Senior Leaders are hectic. This can make it difficult to find time to be on the “floor” interacting with employees. However, employees tell us that it is harder to trust leaders when they feel like they never see them or that they don’t understand how work gets done. Looking for creative ways to be “visible” and demonstrate a connection to day-to-day challenges is important for building trust.

“We need more visibility/interaction from senior leadership. They need to “show up” for this company and for the employees on the ground. Come to company events and be visible rather than hiding in their offices.”

“Leaders need to get out of closed door meetings and onto the floor. When making decisions on major projects, resource allocation, etc, leaders should look more to people on the floor interacting with clients everyday for input, and less to those whose jobs are more strictly focused on internal administration and management.”


  • Visibility with a small, select group of employees can lead to perceptions of favoritism. Be sure to cast a wide net.

  • Leaders use their schedule or their “introversion” as an excuse for not interacting with employees.

  • Viewing the items on a “to do” list as priority over relationship building.

  • Relying on the CEO (or another charismatic individual) to be the face of senior leadership as opposed to the entire leadership team.

  • Failing to block off time in the week to be present with employees.


  • Take “the long way” in/out of the office so that there is more of a chance for casual hallway conversations

  • Use car/travel time to make phone calls to check in with employees

  • If management by walking around doesn’t come naturally, schedule time on your calendar or ask someone to nudge you to get out and about.

  • Leverage video technology for meetings to build stronger personal connections.

  • Be Human: When interacting with employees, leaders should show their vulnerability by sharing information about their personal lives or even talking about mistakes. Be sure to ask others about what is going on with them as well.