One of my very first jobs was working as a recruiter for a headhunting firm. Recruiting, like sales, is a profession believed to be about hustle first, skill and talent later. As a result, managers of recruiters focus a lot of time and energy measuring and counting activities that are believed to demonstrate hustle and be predictive of the results they ultimately want.

Every day, we reviewed call logs. We were grilled about the number of phone calls we made, the amount of “talk time” we logged, and how many interviews we scheduled. While I understood the intention behind this practice, I hated it.

And I got the message, “You are not to be trusted. We will micromanage you until you either succeed or quit.” This leadership mentality leads to a greater distrust cycle that brings down morale and productivity.

In fact, the amount of time we spent gaming the system to avoid the daily inquisition was comical (and wildly unproductive). Compound that by the amount of time spent complaining and talking about how ridiculous the entire process was, and it’s a miracle anyone got anything done.

When employees don’t feel trusted, bad things happen. At the very least, without trust, you cannot create a workplace where employees can do their best work.

As a leader, how do you know if your employees feel trusted? Here are some signs to look for and how to build that trust:

Signs Employees Do Not Feel Trusted

You do all the talking in meetings
When you meet with your team, pay attention to how much “air time” is distributed. Do you spend most of the time talking at them, telling them what to do? Or is the meeting more of a balanced discussion? Also, what kind of interaction happens in the discussion? Will people openly disagree with you?

When people don’t contribute, it’s usually a lack of confidence either in themselves or in leadership. In these instances, it is often a combination of both factors. Employees need to trust that you will open the discussion to them and that you will trust their contributions to the overall success of the team and organization. Without that trust, you might as well be talking to an empty room.

When you ask for opinions, you hear crickets
On a recent call with an old friend who had asked for my feedback on her new business plan, I asked if she was really looking for feedback or, perhaps, was really just looking for encouragement.

Too often, when we ask others for feedback, what we are really looking for is reinforcement, not critique or suggestions for how to improve. As a result, when the requested “feedback” comes, we become defensive and explain why the feedback is wrong or misinformed.

Do this to someone enough and they learn quickly that you aren’t genuine in your desire for feedback, and they can’t trust you to take it as intended.

Employees need to feel trusted to give genuine and constructive criticism, just as they are expected to receive it productively in performance reviews. When that relationship is established and communication is open, trust becomes natural for both the workforce and leadership.

Employees ask for permission when they don’t need it
Upon taking over a new team, I had one employee who repeatedly asked for permission to work at a coffee shop when she needed to write. Despite being told that this was always OK, she continued to ask for permission.

What I learned was that she had managers in the past who she couldn’t trust. So, to protect herself, she learned to ask about everything. In time, she stopped asking as our trust developed. In demonstrating that she was trusted enough to make a decision without unexpected retribution, she was able to feel confident in the decisions she made.

This is perhaps the most common and easily spotted sign of distrust. If your employees are asking for permission when they have been told it’s not necessary, treat it as a red flag that they don’t feel trusted and work to amend that working relationship.

You only hear good news
My friend and colleague, Joe Gerstandt, frequently reminds me that “Trust always precedes the truth.” If all you hear from your employees is how well everything is going and reinforcement for everything you are already doing, it’s likely you have a trust issue.

Your employees are closest to your customers and they will hear about things that aren’t working ideally — even if your business is doing well. Unless they trust you to listen and take action on issues, they are likely just burying those and trying to cope while your customers absorb the pain.

In order to improve relations with clients and colleagues, alike, it is essential that employees feel trusted to share their experiences and ideas to grow the success of the organization. You can achieve this by being more actively available in the day-to-day of the workplace and gaining the trust of your employees.

How to Build Trust with Employees

As they often say, admitting (or noticing) you have a problem is half the battle. Once you recognize you have the opportunity to create more mutual trust, you can begin the work of building it.

Unless you are new to your leadership role, there’s a high likelihood that your behavior is contributing to your employees not feeling trusted. Management expert, Ken Blanchard, has outlined what he calls the ABCD Trust Model which provides a useful framework. This model outlines the four elements of trust:

  • Able – Are you perceived as competent in your role? Do you have the skills and capabilities to lead the team effectively? When others perceive that you are committed to your own growth and development, it builds confidence.
  • Believable – Do your employees feel that you are honest, open, and fair?  Employees want to know that you can be trusted to be straight with them, even when things aren’t going well.
  • Connected – People want to know that their leaders care about them. They also want to know that you are human and that you can relate to their challenges.
  • Dependable – Once these three foundations are laid, people want to know that you can be counted on consistently. Dependability is really about integrity and accountability to your people

Most importantly, if you want your employees to feel trusted, you need to ask for feedback…and listen.

Using this model for inspiration, start asking your employees for feedback. You can do this through conversations or by using technology. The goal is to understand how your team perceives you relative to these trust building behaviors so you can make progress.

And remember the golden rule of employee feedback: their perception is their reality.  Don’t argue, explain or defend when asking for feedback. Ask only for clarification and further detail.

Take visible action to improve. Once you are equipped with feedback, create a summary of what you learned and what you are committed to doing to get better. Share this with your team for feedback.

This act of validation starts a new cycle of trust building. But, then it’s critical to follow through on your plan. Ask your team to both hold you accountable and to offer feedback along the way.
Soon, your employees will have higher trust in you. And once they begin to trust more, they will start to feel more trusted. If you go first, they will likely follow.




Natalie Hackbarth is the Inbound Marketing Manager of Quantum Workplace, a company dedicated to providing every organization with quality engagement tools that guide their next step in making work better every day. You can connect with Natalie and the Quantum Workplace team on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

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