Employees who trust their business leaders are up to 23 times more likely to be engaged with their organisation and its goals than those who don’t. A key indicator if ever there was one that trust is now a critical business currency. Yet it’s a word not always associated with leaders.

Certainly, the balance of trust for our leaders has shifted hugely over the past 18 months. As the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer highlights, trust in our governments and our media has fallen in the past year. In fact, these institutions are considered a divisive force by nearly 50% of survey respondents.

With the pandemic shining a spotlight on our values more than ever, trust, humanity and empathy have become the new cornerstones of leadership.

The good news for business leaders is that 77% of people trust their own employer more than the government, media and NGOs. And while this doesn’t override the default position of distrust that the Barometer shows, it does give business the ‘unique opportunity to emerge as a critical stabilizing force.’

An open opportunity for leaders
In fact, employees are actively looking for CEOs to rebuild the trust that has been lost. They expect them to become the face of change, leading development and driving engagement on wider societal issues.

81% of respondents believe ‘CEOs should be personally visible when discussing public policy with external stakeholders or work their company has done to benefit society’, while 60% ‘expect the CEO to speak publicly about controversial social and political issues that I care about’ when they are considering a job.

A huge pressure, then, on our business leaders. But the bedrock is already there, if these leaders are able to leverage and build on the trust their employees already have in their organisations and their fellow employees.

Equally, these leaders must trust their managers to engage and drive their teams; and managers must trust their teams to be productive while working and communicating differently. At all levels, trust must be role-modelled as a core behaviour, not only to drive engagement but also to create a cohesive approach that delivers on strategic organisational goals.

We’ve seen encouraging examples of this over the past 18 months. Many firms have managed to increase trust levels amongst their employees by being transparent during the pandemic. One of our financial services clients, for example, managed to enhance trust levels towards their ExCo almost two-fold (from just over 40% to around 80%) by being open and honest during the earliest phases of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The rise and rise of Balanced Leadership
One of the big challenges for leaders is how to build trust when they are often more distant, less accessible and less ‘local’. The answer lies in a Balanced Leadership approach, a model for leadership that combines the softer, human traits that have proven to be core drivers of morale, engagement and productivity during the pandemic with the critical harder skills of leadership capability and competence.

These human traits include the ability to:

  • Listen: authentically
  • Show humanity: demonstrating empathy with your people during this time of huge change really matters
  • Be honest: communicate openly and explain the rationale behind decisions
  • Have humility: be prepared to admit mistakes and say when you don’t have the answer
  • Look after your people: recognise that individual team members have their own strengths, needs and concerns
  • Demonstrate empathy: leaders with strong empathy are over five times more likely to have teams working under them who demonstrate the same quality to other stakeholder groups.

We’ve seen a great example of the latter point in a technology organisation. The leadership team has been asking the incredibly simple question, “how are you?”, of their employees. This is done in a systematic way via conversations and listening surveys.

Using smart, text analytics tools to analyse responses has allowed leaders to adapt how the organisation looks after its people – in direct response to the insight those people have provided.

In another organisation, a global manufacturing brand, we’ve seen humility in action as leaders make decisions about hybrid working and a return to the workplace.
The organisation used employee survey feedback to iterate their return-to-work plans, directly addressing data that focused on employees concerns and hopes for a post-pandemic working environment. This simple act of asking employees their views, rather than assuming leaders know best and imposing leadership-led directives, helped build huge amounts of trust in the leadership team at a time of significant change.

Trust is not a choice
As we become firmly embedded in the ongoing uncertainty of 2022, it’s going to be critical for organisational leaders as a united entity to ‘double down on purpose and [put] ESG at the core of business strategy.’[1]

At an individual level, now is the time for leaders to take time to assess themselves, to choose to behave differently and to build a culture in which a high-performing, balanced organisation can thrive: one which equalises strategic business focus with real, open humanity.

As our research at the start highlighted, trust will be central to this culture if leaders are to take their people with them through the re-entry to the workplace as the pandemic recedes. Many businesses and workplaces are going through significant change – cultural, in terms of their business models, practical and physical. And research across the years has shown that trust in leadership is absolutely vital if employees are to come with you on a journey of transformation.

Those businesses that use smart data and analytics to understand their trust levels, track the depth of trust they have and actively build trust with their people will survive and prosper at a much greater rate.

[1] Edelman Trust Barometer 2022; Dave Samson, Global Vice Chairman, Corporate Affairs, Edelman