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22 Jun 2020

How a culture of trust can improve employee engagement

I think back to the conversations we used to have about employee engagement and realise Coronavirus has stripped bare what matters today and what was missing before.  Employers and researchers would frequently lament low levels of engagement and productivity and the negative impact of both on the national economy.  Neither could agree the best way to achieve this ideal state. 


Fast forward to today and employers are asking people to work differently. To step up and find solutions to problems they haven’t encountered before.  Several that I’ve spoken to this week say that staff are showing a stronger connection with their work and each other.  In team huddles, there’s a palpable sense of pride as staff say they feel they are making a real contribution to their customers or organisation and are learning from the stretch. 

What’s made that difference is a switch in focus from levels of productivity, to support a people-centric culture.  It’s ironic that at a time when the bottom line is no longer the primary focus for most organisations that many are creating conditions associated with greater engagement and productivity.  In order to respond rapidly to fast changing events, leaders and line managers are having to trust their employees to work in different ways, some remotely, and empower them to find solutions to new problems.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a high trust culture is consistently associated with positive outcomes for both individuals and organisations.  Research has shown for some time that employees collaborate better with colleagues and stay with their employers longer than people that work in low-trust companies. 

What organisations are learning during this period is that trust is like the yeast activator in making bread.  Without it, levels of engagement won’t rise.  We are starting to see a shift in what we think is important in leadership to win and build trust. Here’s some of the learning employers have shared with me this week on how line managers can build a culture of trust.

Lead with empathy– neuroscience shows that increased levels of the hormone oxytocin in a person’s bloodstream are associated with higher levels of trust.  A leader who wants to create greater feelings of trust with employees needs to ensure their interactions build oxytocin rather than stress inducing cortisol which slays trust.  For leaders this means, taking time to have meaningful conversations with individual employees.  Ones where you walk in their shoes, see the world from their perspective, and help them find ways to overcome barriers to problems.

It’s no good discussing with a parent who is working from home, while caring for a toddler or home schooling a stroppy teenager, ways they might increase their productivity.   Managers need to understand the challenges they face and agree what’s possible to deliver under the circumstances.

Empathy like any muscle takes practice and repetition to build.  Empathetic organisations invest time to build the emotional intelligence, listening, and coaching skills of their line managers.  Skills they will need in abundance once lock down is lifted as the road to recovery will be long and bumpy. 

Show your people it’s OK to be vulnerable - If you want people to place their trust in your leadership you first have to first earn that trust.  Asking for help is the sign of a strong not weak leader and shows your people that experienced leaders co-create solutions with their teams rather than dispensing answers all of the time.

Trust your people to find their own solutions to problems – being trusted to figure things out for yourself is a big motivator.  In times of crisis when employees have to react to fast changing events, a good leader will set the direction of travel, help their team to understand the issue, and set them free to find solutions, and collaborate with others to implement them. This approach isn’t a soft cop-out. Leaders still hold employees accountable for their performance but the way they do so engenders trust in both directions.  Harvard studies show that the more trust a leader invests in their people the more they behave in a way that is trustworthy.

Prevent rather than remedy wellbeing – as a nation we are being encouraged to monitor and support our mental and physical health in a way that we never have before.  It now feels acceptable to discuss wellbeing as a business critical rather than nice-to-have strategy.  Recovery will be a marathon not a sprint and employers will need to keep this important conversation going. 

When lockdown is lifted the workforce will contain people in a range of emotional and physical states.  From exhausted frontline and key workers, working parents who need a break, and furloughed staff pleased to be working again but who possibly feel anxious, disorientated, less engaged.  All will need strategies to support personal and collective resilience.

Give employees more control over time spent away from work - flexible and agile ways of working give employees more choice about how and when they balance work with commitments outside of work.  Trust forms the basis of these working arrangements.  Without it the whole thing falls apart. I sincerely hope this period of enforced remote working has shown presenteeism for what it is, baseless fear. Leaders should set clear goals and deliverables, check in, not on, employees to see whether they need any assistance, then trust them to deliver.

Be quick off the mark to celebrate achievements– neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met. When it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal and public.  It’s also a great way to share and encourage best practice.

If we thought increased productivity was important to the UK economy before coronavirus, we now know that it will determine not just the survival of many businesses but levels of funding for public services.  To achieve this, we have to learn to better trust our people.

This article is provided by Edenred.

In partnership with Edenred

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