Employees Don’t Trust Senior Leaders – Now What?

Leanne Buehler, Ph.D., Principal Science and Innovation AdvisorEmployee Engagement, LeadershipLeave a Comment

For the last two years, trust in senior leaders has been the number one driver of employee engagement among our clients. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise – we are in a global trust crisis. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear of a news story in which trust is at the center. Whether it is politics, experiences with large corporations, how our personal information is protected, or even the world of sports, we have serious trust doubts.

In fact, an article in the journal of Psychological Science found that in the early 1970s, 46% of Americans said they trust most people. In 2012, that number was only 33%.

This trend is no different when it comes to organizations. Newmeasures finds that only 56% of employees trust their senior leaders. And, there is no shortage of research that finds that trust has a big impact on organizations. It impacts how well we collaborate and communicate. Trust impacts our ability to execute and innovate. A study by Schockley-Zalaback, Morreale and Hackman (2010) found that high trust organizations outperform low trust organizations by 286%.

So what is an organization to do when it learns, often from an engagement survey, that trust in senior leaders needs improvement? Part of the problem with delivering this kind of feedback to an executive team is that “trust” is an emotionally charged word and it is incredibly broad in scope. A quick google of the definition of trust is “the belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest and effective.” There is a lot packed into that definition, from integrity, to kindness to accomplishing results. No wonder it is so hard to move the needle on trust!

Because of the complexity and relevance of this topic, we have been working to help our clients better understand the root causes behind low perceptions of trust. Based on our research, we know that trust is made up of 6 key elements, and most of the time it is just one or two that lead to concerns.

6 Elements of Trust

Consistent Behavior: Acts consistently in both words and behaviors in ways that support the vision/mission and values of the organization. Is willing to make sacrifices for the greater good.

Cares for Others: Builds strong relationships based on a genuine interest in and care for others.

Lives Values: Does what is right vs. what is easy; consistently models the values of the organization.

Clear Expectations: Sets clear expectations and priorities. Holds others accountable for meeting expectations.

Consistent Results: Meets or exceeds expectations for his/her performance.

Continuous Improvement: Keeps skills fresh and current; continuously looks for ways to learn and grow; is willing to admit that he/she does not have all of the answers.

One way in which executives can better understand how to take action on low trust levels is to get feedback from employees on these 6 dimensions. This can be done via an engagement survey or a 360 leadership survey. In the Newmeasures 360, we have added a Trust Index that helps leaders understand where they are strong in building trust and areas for opportunity. As an example, with one organization we worked with, the survey results highlighted that there was a concern around favoritism. In another organization, trust was low because the CEO was exiting the company which contributed to feelings of uncertainty. The way these organizations went about improving perceptions of trust were obviously very different, but knowing the root cause gave them a place to start.

In addition, measurement around trust can highlight key employee populations where trust is a concern, so that leaders can be more focused in their efforts. For example, it is common to find that middle management has the biggest concerns around trust. Given that they are a key leverage point for the rest of the organization, it makes sense for executives to focus on that specific group of people, which will in turn impact the rest of the organization.

Trust is personal and complex. And at the same time, trust is what allows organizations to run smoothly and efficiently. It requires care and intentionality. Helping executives understand how they are doing at building an environment of trust that is specific and actionable is key. In doing so, leaders are much more likely to feel empowered so that they can make a difference on improving trust.


Schockley-Zalaback, Morreale, & Hackman. (2010). Strategies for Supporting Key Dimensions of Trust. Jossey-Bass.

For a copy of the research article from Psychological Science contact:

Anna Mikulak
Association for Psychological