Building More Trust in Today’s Business Landscape

Leadership, business, and the need for trust

May 4, 2017 | Denise Gifford

A leader seeking success needs to be trusted. In study after study, research on leadership lists trust as a top trait, and studies have shown that when trust in a leader increases, productivity goes up and costs go down. As people, it’s natural to gravitate towards leaders we can trust. We want to know and believe that they have our best interests at heart.

But these days, our ability to trust has been challenged, not only in business, but in other parts of our day-to day-lives. A 2014 study at San Diego State University showed that our trust in others has declined over recent decades. In 1972, 46% of adult Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” But by 2012, only 33% agreed. And this lack of trust has spilled over into our personal lives as well: psychologists have noted an increase in trust issues among couples who seek counseling.

And in the last three years, the number of CEOs who are concerned about a lack of trust in business grew from 37% to 55%, according to the most recent PwC Annual Global CEO survey. So it’s not surprising that more research is currently being done on the topic of trust. One great example of this is the Trust Project at Northwestern University, which “aims to create a unique body of knowledge about Trust by connecting scholars and executives from diverse backgrounds to share ideas and research.”

So how do we work on rebuilding trust in today’s world? Can we bring trust back?

Our ability to trust begins in childhood, when we first learn who is consistently there for us. As a child, I’d happily leap into my father’s arms at the pool; not so with the aunt or uncle I barely knew. Over time, my father had demonstrated consistency and predictability, the two main factors in establishing trust. And as adults, we continue to look for consistency and predictability to decide if someone is trustworthy.

A quick look at published articles on leadership and trust provides a laundry list of additional attributes of a trustworthy leader: consistency, warmth, empathy, communication, humility, fairness, competence, transparency, clarity, and predictability. It’s clear that we look for multiple cues to determine whether to trust, and it’s also clear that many of these factors take time and effort to be established.

In today’s business world, we often have less time working directly with any one specific business leader. That means less time to establish trust. And in the future, this trend is likely to continue. We may find ourselves in a series of micro-jobs, not working for a single boss or company. To be successful in this context, it will be up to all of us, not just leadership, to help build the strong, supportive, trusting work environments we desire.

In business, there’s a real payoff to working within a culture of trust. According to research by Paul J. Zak and his team at the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, “those working in high-trust companies enjoyed their jobs 60% more, were 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose, and felt 66% closer to their colleagues.” According to Zak, experiments have shown that having a higher sense of purpose stimulates oxytocin in humans, which produces happiness. And the same goes for the feeling of trust—when we trust, our bodies produce oxytocin. As Zak puts it, “joy on the job comes from doing purpose-driven work with a trusted team.”

Whether we’re leaders or individual contributors at our company, we have an opportunity to shape how trust happens in the workplace. The reciprocity of sharing and giving – deep-rooted in us as humans – provides a way to begin. We can share information with our co-workers, and we can listen to them and show empathy. We can show others that we trust them by giving them opportunities to help us with our work, and by being more helpful when they need support. By making an effort to create more trust at work, we can be more productive and happier as employees and leaders.

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  • About The Author
  • Denise Gifford is co-founder of InfoWorks® International, which has provided consulting and training to companies worldwide in project management and related skills. Prior to leading InfoWorks, Denise worked in sales and marketing management, and as a consultant to the financial services industry. She holds her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.