Manager-Employee Relationship: Trust Begets Trust


Trust is the cornerstone of employee engagement and workplace productivity. According to an HBR study titled “Want Your Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them,” a lack of trust between managers and employees can have a ripple effect. Employees who feel that they are trusted by their managers have more confidence in the workplace, are more productive, exert more effort, and go above and beyond what is expected from their role.

While managers do a lot to gain the trust of their employees, and also trust their employees, it is important that this trust is manifested in a form which is perceivable by the employee. Unless and until an employee “feels” the trust, s/he will not reciprocate it. 

“Many employees say they do not feel trusted by their managers,” says Holly Henderson Brower, Scott Wayne Lester, and M. Audrey Korsgaard, authors of the study. “And when employees don’t feel trusted, workplace productivity and engagement often suffer. It’s up to managers to signal trust in their employees in consistent and thoughtful ways.”

The study, which has explored hundreds of manager-employee relationships for over a period of 10 years in multiple organizations, reveals that there are some specific ways in which managers unintentionally erode trust. These are:

  • Well-intentioned actions: Managers usually think that if they trust their employees, then the employee will automatically know it. But even some well-intentioned actions from managers, like periodic check-ins or support may be construed as a lack of trust in the ability of an employee to work independently. 
  • Risk minimization policies: Organizational policies that promote restricted access to resources and information, and centralization of authority, apart from bureaucratic cultures, limit employee initiative. Such policies which usually aim to minimize risks can be construed as a lack of trust in the employee’s ability to manage information and resources and can stifle initiative.
  • Bottom line focus: When too much stress is put on costs and performance targets, managers may unintentionally end up controlling the outcomes of their projects/departments, which may sometimes be at the expense of empowering and developing relationships with their employees.

So, how can managers overcome such setbacks and signal trust in their employees? The first step to build trust has to come from the managers as the onus to establish and promote mutual trust is on them. According to the study, managers have to do the following to build trust:

  1. Start with the assumption that employees do trust managers a lot. 
  2. Managers should take stock of and evaluate the risks, vulnerabilities, policies, practices and controls that the organization, and they themselves, impose on the employees with respect to their impact on promoting trust in employees. This includes the way managers conduct themselves also.
  3. Ceding control is another good way to show that managers trust their employees. By giving adequate scope in assignments, granting resource authority and cultivating a higher tolerance for mistakes, managers can convey prudent and incremental trust in their employees.
  4. By sharing information and communicating honestly and openly, managers promote transparency and therefore, trust. By explaining the reasons behind their decisions despite apprehensions about premature leaks, dissension or second-guessing, managers can create an environment that fosters trust and preempts suspicions of any bias.

For managers to succeed in gaining the trust of their employees, they should be willing to experiment and also learn from any potential mistakes. This includes a willingness to invest and advocate in the potential of their employees.