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Leaders need to prioritize these 3 things if they want workers to trust them

Focusing on clarity, consistency, and choice can help any leader establish trust.

Leaders need to prioritize these 3 things if they want workers to trust them
[Source photo: Rawpixel]

In order to achieve a healthy and productive workforce you need trust. Doug Conant, the former CEO of Campbell’s Soup, called it, “the foundational element of high-performing organizations.” When he took the helm at Campbell’s, Conant made “Inspiring Trust” his first mission in turning around the company’s performance, which eventually led to shareholder returns in the top tier of the global food market and among the highest levels of employee engagement in the Fortune 500.

The Great Place to Work Institute has found that “trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.” In fact, employees who displayed a high degree of trust in their management, compared with lower-trust companies, had 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, and 40% less burnout.

It’s easy to see that trust is important at work. What’s a little harder to see, however, is how to build trust. In my work as a manager and through coaching and training other leaders, I have come to believe that trust at work comes down to the three Cs: clarity, consistency, and choice.


Clarity means that we are clear in our expectations, needs, goals, and timelines. So often, supervisors hope that their team members can intuit their expectations. They don’t want to have to think through what’s needed, or they hate having to ask people to do things. Of course, this isn’t fair to anyone. We can only feel confident in doing a task if first we understand what the task is. Similarly, if the task needs to be completed in a specific timeframe or in a certain way that also must be communicated. Unfortunately, according to Gallup, just half of workers strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work. To make matters worse, managers are even less likely than individual contributors to report that they know what is expected of them.

In his book, Unreasonable Hospitality, Will Guidara discusses a restaurant manager who sees that a server has arrived at work with a wrinkled shirt. Though bothered by the shirt, the manager doesn’t say anything to the server because he doesn’t want to come across as a nag. Then the server comes to work the next day with a wrinkled shirt, and the next, and the next. Over time, the manager becomes incensed at what he sees as the server’s laxness—though he had never communicated his expectations. Rather than bottling up the frustration and eventually blowing up at the baffled server, the manager should have taken the server aside the first time she showed up with a wrinkled shirt, with an easy, “Great to see you! That shirt looks a little rough today. Why don’t you head upstairs and give it a once-over with the iron before your shift?”

Leaders can avoid conflict in the future if they build a sense of security with their team by communicating expectations with clarity.


I once spoke with a woman who had founded a small company. There were three top leaders in the organization and over the pandemic, one of them had become increasingly difficult to reach. For hours a day, the man did not respond to calls, emails, or text messages. His direct reports, unable to get the answers and approvals they needed, began to go to another team lead, or to the founder herself. Some projects languished. When I asked the woman what she thought was going on, she explained that the man was a single father and that she empathized with the challenges he faced in parenting a young child alone during the pandemic. I next asked how long this had gone on. “Nine months?,” she guessed. “Maybe a year?”

To be clear, all workers deserve flexibility and compassion. However, we can’t build trust in a team if we are showing compassion to one member at the expense of others. The work that the single father was not doing didn’t vanish; someone else was picking it up instead. By allowing this to go on for so long, the founder was communicating to the rest of the team that they mattered less than the single father. That’s not a great way to build trust in a team.

It’s also of course essential that the work continues to get done at a high level. It doesn’t serve anyone if output suffers because of one team member’s performance. For instance, if a company loses clients, everyone in the company is in jeopardy.

To create a sense of trust on the team, rules must be clearly and universally applied. We can (and should) still have flexibility but we must be clear about what the exceptions are to the rules, and those exceptions should also apply equally.


Finally, trust also depends on choice. People need to have some autonomy over the decisions that affect their lives. A draconian approach of “my way or the highway” without explanation or flexibility is ultimately doomed to fail.

Thus, wherever possible, consider whether a rule is needed, or whether you can allow people to choose for themselves. Is it essential that you assign the office space or can you let people pick their offices? Can you allow people to choose their in-office days? Or at least one of them? How much flexibility can you allow in terms of working hours? Could the team vote on the best day and time for your staff meeting? If you’re assigning three tasks to a particular team member, can you let her decide on the order in which to tackle them? Can you give team members some choice on the tasks they work on, or some freedom to explore projects that interest them?

When we allow people to make decisions, we demonstrate that we trust them, which builds their trust of us, as well.

Perhaps even more important, encouraging choice and autonomy helps individuals to build trust in themselves. When we manage every detail and proscribe every process, we communicate that we know more than our employees and then they begin to doubt themselves. Instead of growing and thriving, they are diminished.

In her book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, Liz Wiseman discusses the leadership style of Robert Enslin, president of Global Customer Operations at SAP AG. When meeting a new team and uncovering a problematic structure, “Instead of playing the authoritarian, judging their failure, and dictating his solution, Robert restrained himself and started a learning process,” writes Wiseman. After uncovering the shortfalls of their current approach, he asked, “How can we take this to the next level?” As Wiseman notes, “He created space for the team to try new approaches and fix the problem themselves.” This builds a team atmosphere where people feel empowered and motivated to strive—allowing them to trust themselves and trust their leadership.

Prioritizing these three Cs in both our individual relationships as well as when considering office-wide policies can help leaders avoid thorny challenges and ensure that decision-making, language, and action are aligned to build and maintain trust.

Katharine Manning is the author of The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job. She supports corporate, government, and nonprofit organizations in building human-centered and trauma-informed workplace cultures.

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Katharine Manning is the author of The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job. She supports corporate, government, and nonprofit organizations in building human-centered and trauma-informed workplace cultures. More

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