The Blog

Trust in Leaders

Trust lies at the heart of healthy, productive workplaces and for this reason has long been an area of focus for the CIPD. We have been tracking perceptions of senior leaders since 2009, however this year we have explored trust to a greater extent than ever before.

In recent years, issues of trust have been pushed to the top of the business agenda, following a series of high-profile scandals that have beset organisations ranging from the world's leading banks, to media companies, and swept across the health service, politics, and even sport. Trust, as with corporate culture and behaviours, starts from the top, as demonstrated with the recent partial shutdown of the United States' government.

A poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News found that, in addition to the damage to public trust and confidence in the political process, 82 per cent of respondents believed that the budget dispute has damaged the morale of federal government employees. Politicians and senior managers within the US government must now begin to rebuild that trust, and it's going to be a long journey.

Trust lies at the heart of healthy, productive workplaces and for this reason has long been an area of focus for the CIPD. We have been tracking perceptions of senior leaders since 2009, however this year we have explored trust to a greater extent than ever before. Our latest study looks at whether trust is spoken about within organisations, the current state of trust in leaders, how this compares to trust in others - such as colleagues and line managers - and how important trust is when selecting senior managers.

Based on the views of over 3,000 employees, across the private, public and voluntary sectors, the study reveals that many senior managers operate in a cocoon of denial when it comes to the levels of trust in their organisations. While one in three employees rate trust in senior managers as weak, trust ratings increase with an employee's seniority, with senior managers far more likely to report strong trust between employees and senior management than non-managerial staff.

This lack of trust in senior managers is in stark contrast to the reported levels of trust in colleagues and line managers (92 per cent and 80 per cent respectively). These findings are echoed by others such as the Edelman Trust Barometer which similarly shows that with an increasing lack of trust in senior leaders, people focus on those closest to them - their colleagues and line managers. This is perhaps not too surprising given that questions have been raised in recent years about the ethics and behaviours of top leaders. Those closest to us are in the first circle of trust. The problem is that beyond this circle of trust, a disconnect with the more senior levels of organisations can create a very counterproductive sense of 'us and them'. This pattern is particularly evident in the public sector where employees enjoy the highest level of trust in colleagues but report the lowest levels of trust in senior managers.

The findings from our latest study demonstrate a worrying lack of awareness among senior managers about how their organisations function. Listening and understanding your employees is a core tenant of good people management, without which the foundations of trust cannot be built. Employees want to be heard and they want to be recognised, and while 'employee voice' can be spoken through many channels, it must start with direct connection to team leaders and managers. And if the gap between senior managers and more junior colleagues in an organisation continues to widen, those at the helm will find it increasingly difficult to drive and implement change and engage employees so that they can perform to the best of their ability.

In September this year, the CIPD conducted research into culture change and patient care within the NHS, which flagged a significant lack of trust in senior leaders, high levels of stress and in some areas low levels of employee engagement, particularly among nursing staff. It also showed the importance of data and employee feedback in helping managers identify emerging problems. Good information, people related metrics which allow senior managers to understand and track engagement, feelings of trust, and trends such as absenteeism, retention and recruitment rates, are all critical; they help leaders gain an accurate picture of how an organisation is operating and can provide early warning indicators for potential culture, capability and capacity problems. These can then also be linked to output or outcome measures, which reinforces why we need to pay attention to this type of people data. While this has particular salience for the NHS, it is relevant to any organisation within any sector.

However, as our recent CIPD report into trust also showed, the principles behind creating a climate of trust are not rocket science and are achievable in any organisation.

The majority of employees surveyed reference relatively simple practices such as leaders being 'approachable', 'competent' and 'consistent' and acting with honesty and integrity. Those surveyed also state that they admire leaders who admit mistakes, consult on major decisions and treat staff fairly and with respect - attributes that suggest a bit more humility.

All these behaviours and practices can be adopted by any senior manager and, when used alongside employee feedback and data, can make a real difference; they can help to radically transform employees' trust levels in their managers and organisations, and can work to inform senior managers so that the gap in perceptions of trust is narrowed.

At the CIPD's Annual Conference on 7th November, Dr Graham Abbey, director of executive development at the University of Bath's School of Management, will share early insights from research being conducted in collaboration with the CIPD, which explores how to recruit and develop trustworthy leaders.