How to Earn Employee Trust and Build a High-Performance Team

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 11, 2016

Have you ever worked in an organization where there was a low level of trust among peers, or where direct reports did not trust their boss or the CEO of the company? This type of organization has a toxic atmosphere, which significantly reduces its effectiveness and its ability to achieve results.

What is “trust?” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines trust as a “belief that someone is reliable, good, honest and effective … one in which confidence is placed.” Wouldn’t we all like to work within organizations in which all employees felt this level of trust in their leaders and peers?

Stephen Covey, the late motivational speaker, writer and advisor, once wrote, “Without trust we don’t truly collaborate; we merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate. It is trust that transforms a group of people into a team.” When people don’t trust each other, there is an invisible elephant in the room, which may adversely impact the effectiveness of any decision.

Whether you are the CEO, a mid-level manager or an individual with no direct reports but a member of a team, trust needs to be earned. So, how do you earn the trust of others?

Be consistent and readable by those within your organization.

As a CEO or other leader, there should be no misunderstanding as to your tone at the top – the values to which you hold yourself and your employees accountable, and the type of organizational culture you are nurturing. Employees trust and want to work for an organization with high ethical standards, and work for a leader that lives by those standards. As a leader, ensure your expectations are understood. Situations will arise when decisions need to be made by your employees for which there is no operating procedure or precedent. Employees will fall back on their good critical judgment and proceed in a way consistent with your expectations, tone and culture.

Learn to effectively work with those within your group.

Get to know your co-workers and peers on a personal level, in addition to a professional level. Be genuine. Take an interest in them. Be supportive and collaborative with what they do. Treat them as valued and respected colleagues. Sense how they view you, and change your behavior if you sense you are not being accepted. There are few things worse than feeling like an outsider, or not trusted by those in your group.

Meet your commitments.

Don’t make a commitment you cannot keep. If the situation changes and you find that you can’t keep a commitment, notify the individual immediately. She may have made a commitment to others, based on your commitment to her.

Don’t blame other people for your mistakes.

If you make a mistake, own it, and share how, in the future, the issue will be handled in a different manner. You don’t create trust by blaming others for your mistake. Employees that do this never last long within the kind of organization in which we all want to work.


Focus on what others are saying. Listen intently. Ask questions for understanding. Maintain an appropriate amount of eye contact. If your gaze drifts, you send a signal that you are not interested in what an individual is saying. If they are perceptive, they will stop talking to you. When someone is talking with you, make them feel that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say, even if you don’t agree with them.

Allow your direct reports to share with you a contrary points of view.

I have worked for bosses who were not interested in contrary views. This did not engender trust. As the leader, compare their opinion on how to proceed on an issue with your own view. Through discussion and debate, you may accept their view, or may discover a third alternative path, better than either of the first two paths. Follow this process, and you will rarely choose the wrong way to proceed.

Create an environment that allows employees to share the brutal facts of reality.

As a leader, you want your people to feel safe in sharing bad news. Don’t shoot the messenger. You can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is. You want your people to have trust and confidence that you will listen to them.

Help employees develop a sense of ownership in what they do.

Empower employees, don’t micromanage. Show your employees that you trust them by letting them decide how to accomplish an objective. This will help your employees develop a sense of ownership in what they do. When this occurs, you can rely on them to drive results.

Be accessible and transparent.

Create opportunities for employees other than your direct reports to talk with you. Walk around the office or factory floor. Ask how people are doing. However, avoid telling them what to do. If an issue arises that needs to be addressed, talk with your direct report responsible for the area. Hold town meetings to talk about the business and respond to employees’ questions. Be as transparent as possible, realizing that there are things that cannot be publically shared.

Before making a decision, hear both sides of an issue.

No matter how compelling an argument is presented by an individual on one side of an argument, there is always the other side, which may be more compelling. Hear both sides before making a decision. The individual on the losing side of the issue won’t like your decision, but will respect the fact that you went through a fair process and heard both sides.

Live your values.

Living your values engenders trust. As CEO of PQ Corporation, I experienced a minor OSHA recordable accident while traveling on business. I insisted that the accident be written up, and for that quarter, I was one of PQ’s safety statistics. Word was spread to our 56 manufacturing facilities around the world that the CEO called an OSHA recordable accident on himself. That demonstrated that I held myself accountable to the same standards as I held our employees.

The best talent will want to work for companies where there are high levels of trust with the senior leadership and among fellow employees. These are the companies that have the lowest turnover and achieve the highest long-term returns to shareholders. This is the type of company at which we all want to work.

Stanley W. Silverman is the founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a writer and speaker, advising C-suite executives about issues and on cultivating a leadership culture within their organizations. Stan is Vice Chairman of the Board of Drexel University and a director of Friends Select School and Faith in the Future. He is the former President and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Website:

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