How to Build a High-Trust Workplace

The more your employees trust you, the more engaged they’ll be.

Reading Time: 10 min 


  • These days, it’s hard to read the news without encountering a story about quiet quitting — the notion that swaths of employees have become so disengaged that they’re doing the minimum required to keep their jobs. To address this issue, many organizations are investing in better office spaces, hybrid work support, enhanced employee wellness, and more targeted collection of employee feedback. Other companies in an array of industries are taking a more punitive approach, such as withholding benefits or strong-arming underperformers into taking a buyout.

    We contend that leaders need to take a fundamentally different tack, starting by asking the question, “How much do my employees trust me?”

    Our research shows that trust is a critical driver of engagement. Trusting employees are 260% more motivated to work, have 41% lower rates of absenteeism, and are 50% less likely to look for another job. But consider this: We also found that roughly 1 in 4 workers don’t trust their employer. At the same time, most employers overestimate their workforce’s trust level by almost 40%. With this misalignment in trust, it’s no wonder that worker engagement is suffering.

    Lack of trust is a huge and destructive problem with no easy fix. But, as we’ll show, systematic trust-building is a critical part of the solution. What has held many leaders back is that they have lacked a simple, robust way to measure, predict, and manage trust and to link specific actions they take to changes in trust levels. Without reliable methods of measurement, managers have struggled to know whether actions intended to enhance trust are actually working.

    Many leaders have lacked a simple, robust way to measure, predict, and manage trust and to link specific actions they take to changes in trust levels.

    We spent two years developing and testing a novel platform called the HX TrustID that companies can use for free to gauge and tease apart the elements of employee trust and devise strategies for improving it. We are focused on trust-building because this an effective path to elevating human experience — the “HX” in Trust ID. (While our platform can be broadly applied to increase customers’ and other stakeholders’ trust too, here we focus only on its employee applications.) The platform builds on a simple, four-question survey that we validated by collecting 350,000 scores across more than 10 industries.

    What makes the tool unique is that rather than providing a blunt overall measure of employee trust from low to high, it distinguishes between four different aspects of trust: humanity, transparency, capability, and reliability. By measuring their performance on each of these factors, leaders get a broad view not only of how well trusted they are but why they are trusted — or not — and what they need to do to increase trust levels.

    In its basic form, the survey asks employees to indicate on a 7-point scale how much they agree or disagree with the following statements, each of which gauges leaders’ performance on one of the four factors.

    • Humanity: My employer demonstrates empathy and kindness toward me.
    • Transparency: My employer uses straightforward and plain language to share information, motives, and decisions that matter to me.
    • Capability: My employer creates a good work experience for me and provides the resources I need to do my job well.
    • Reliability: My employer consistently and dependably delivers on the commitments it makes to me.

    In our research, few organizations got high scores from their employees on all four factors. While scores across the factors tend to be close for a given organization, there is usually some spread among them, with somewhat higher ratings on humanity, for instance, but lower ratings on transparency. The mix of scores points to areas where leadership should focus its trust-building efforts. (You can find guidance on how to conduct and score the survey and interpret the results in the HX TrustID Workforce Survey.)

    The Trust Journey

    In research involving more than 15,000 employees, we confirmed the conventional wisdom about trust (for example, that if you want employees to trust you, you should show that you trust them), but we also discovered many less-obvious levers. We found that workers who have flexibility in their schedules are 40% more trusting than those who don’t, likely because they have a greater sense of agency. Employees who interact with their customers frequently are more trusting because they view their employer as more human and transparent. And workers who receive more benefits, such as extended health insurance and paid time off, give management higher trust ratings because they see that their employer values providing a good work experience and needed resources.

    Collectively, these findings and others reveal the nuanced nature of employee trust and underscore leaders’ common lack of awareness of trust deficits and the levers they can use to address them. Drawing on our work with companies around customer trust, we developed a five-step approach that applies just as readily to building employee trust. While it’s still early days, several organizations, including our own, are now using our platform for this purpose, as we’ll describe below.

    Our approach starts with articulating the employee behaviors the organization is trying to encourage by enhancing trust: Increase engagement and productivity? Reduce absenteeism or turnover? Clarifying the intended change at the outset will help in determining later on whether the actions being taken are working.

    Next, gather data, using the questions in the TrustID survey. In a smaller organization — say, one with hundreds of employees or fewer — it’s possible (and advantageous) to survey everyone and look for at least a 75% response rate. In larger companies (those over 5,000 employees), we find that surveying 10% to 30% of a representative sample of employees will yield reliable results. In our consulting organization of roughly 87,000 people, for instance, we would survey approximately 30% to reach a total sample size of about 10% of employees.

    This initial survey will reveal leadership’s degree of strength or weakness on each of the four factors. With clarity on where leaders need to direct their initial efforts, it’s time to pilot an intervention — a hypothesis about what changes in approach would be likely to improve employees’ trust where it’s lagging. If leadership scores low on transparency, for instance, what changes in communication with employees could help fix this? It can be important to ask employees for their input here. They often will have insights that leaders lack about how they could improve transparency or one of the other factors — and the act of asking employees for their input can itself enhance their trust.

    Finally, leadership should pilot one or more of the trust-building actions they settle on and conduct follow-up surveys to look for improvement. If the intervention pilot worked, they should then scale up the approach; if not, it’s time to test others. Through an iterative process like this, companies big and small can systematically enhance employees’ trust across the organization.

    The benefits of improving organizational performance on each of the four factors is clear. When employees give their employer high ratings on reliability, they are 40% more likely to share personal information with their employer; if they give high scores on humanity or transparency, they are 50% more likely to go out of their way to optimize how their work gets done or take on additional responsibility; and when they rate their employer highly on capability, they are 60% more likely to learn new skills on their own to improve their work.

    Real-World Tests

    Let’s look at how two very different organizations are piloting our platform with employees: the Center for Women & Enterprise (CWE), a Boston-based nonprofit; and Deloitte, our own organization. Both programs are works in progress but show how companies on any scale can incorporate TrustID into their trust-building efforts.

    In its 25 years of operation, CWE’s small staff has provided tools, education, and other supports to more than 65,000 women business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs across New England. Their overarching goal is to address gender- and race-based income inequality. When Gaby King Morse took the helm as CEO in 2019, she inherited an organization that had grown rapidly and whose roughly 30 staffers had been operating in a startup mode for too long. Lacking clear systems and reliable support for doing their work, team members were starting to struggle to deliver on CWE’s mission. To help clarify the sources of staff frustration, Morse asked employees to take the TrustID survey. The results were concerning: They gave CWE a score of just 50 out of 100 for transparency (how well its leadership shared important information with the staff) and a 53 for reliability (its dependability in delivering on promises).

    Over the past two years, CWE’s leaders have made an array of changes to tackle these issues: They’ve instituted salary transparency, created clear job descriptions that are easy to find, added maternity benefits, strengthened program operations with a new supervisory role, and clarified workflows. Perhaps most important, leadership is actively listening to staff members, communicating that “we’re all in this together,” engaging them on strategy development, and acknowledging when they don’t have the answers. Morse says there’s a palpable feeling of increased trust and engagement among staff members, and staffing has stabilized after a period of turnover. The plan now is to conduct the TrustID survey several more times in the coming year to confirm the progress and identify areas for further improvement.

    At Deloitte, an organization at the other end of the size spectrum, we began collecting TrustID scores as part of our workforce engagement in 2021. We scored highest on humanity and capability and found that we had the most work to do on transparency, followed by reliability. That’s not an uncommon problem in a privately owned organization with a long culture of carefully safeguarding confidential client information.

    To address the transparency challenge, Deloitte is piloting several actions. We learned that one of the key reasons for the low transparency score was the opacity of compensation. In response, the consulting leadership team hosted a series of town halls to shed light on how performance was linked to salary and bonuses so Deloitte consultants could see how their compensation and performance stacked up against peers’ across levels. The organization also set up a team of representatives from all levels to share insights from Deloitte’s internal talent survey and provide a channel for input. The initiative is getting positive feedback from our professionals, who say they feel like they’re truly being heard. Leadership has also invited a broad group to help develop actions designed to build trust, signaling efforts to increase transparency in another way.

    In addressing reliability, it became clear that our professionals felt the organization could do better in supporting their work during the pandemic. To this end, Deloitte doubled the individual well-being subsidy, which can be used for gym memberships, yoga classes, massage therapy, and more, from $500 to $1,000. It also developed a substantial work-from-home subsidy to help its professionals create home office workspaces and provided a commuting-expense subsidy to support hybrid work.

    These programs are just getting started; the plan now, as at CWE, is to follow up with regular TrustID surveys and other measurement tools to gauge the impact of these initiatives and help shape future ones.

    There is always more to be done. Leaders should start by remembering that workers are humans first — individuals with individual needs. Then they should systematically measure trust levels, collaborate with employees to improve them, measure again, and then repeat this process of continuous improvement. The payoff will be more-trusting employees and the potential of all that flows from this: greater staff engagement, less absenteeism and turnover, higher productivity, and — perhaps most important — an elevated work experience for everyone, from the front lines to the C-suite.


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