Rebuilding Trust in Turbulent Times

Nearly every week I read something in a business publication about low employee morale, fear in the workplace, the toll change is taking on organizations, lack of management communication, the stress of having to do more with less, and other issues of general dispiritedness in the workplace. More and more, we are seeing that the cutbacks and reorganizations of the last few years have slowly eroded any level of trust employees may have had in their management team, their own sense of value and job security, and even society in general. What are some ways we can rebuild that trust in our organizations?

First, stop reading this article and write down two basic beliefs you have about people and human nature:

1. _____________________________

2. _____________________________

We will come back to these beliefs later in the article.

“Trust” as a verb is defined in Webster’s New World Dictionary as “1 a) to believe in the honesty, integrity, justice, etc., of; have confidence in b) to rely or depend on (trust him to be on time) 2. to commit; entrust (to a person) 3. to put something confidently in the charge of (to trust a lawyer with one’s case) 4. to allow to do something without fear of the outcome 5. to believe or suppose 6. to expect confidently; hope.” Not all of these definitions of trust are applicable in today’s workplace; however, we need to examine what aspects of trust we CAN rebuild within the new business fabric which is emerging.

Trust is built on relationships, and these relationships are based on emotions or feelings: confidence, honesty, integrity, justice, beliefs, hope. In all my books and speeches, I use an interaction model to illustrate the choices we have in every interaction and to illuminate what is happening in organizations today.

This model demonstrates that in any interaction there are two levels: the Business level: systems, processes, information necessary to meet the person’s external objectives, and the Human level: the feelings and emotions the person has in that interaction. As we think about rebuilding trust, it becomes clear that trust can only be rebuilt if the Human level is taken into consideration. Let’s consider the implications of this for organizations.

Many organizations today are trying to rebuild trust by simply focusing on systems and processes–better performance measures, more equitable benefits, and cross training for employees. Certainly these updated processes and procedures are important; however, trust will only be rebuilt if feelings and emotions are taken into consideration, and ongoing relationships are created.

A recent Roper poll found employee morale and job satisfaction at the lowest point since the poll began decades ago. Employer’s lack of attention has created employees who are disheartened and skeptical. To retain valuable employees, management must find new ways to regenerate the spirits of creativity, commitment, self-worth, purpose, and even fun in today’s workplaces, and, above all, must rebuild employee trust. Only then will our organizations survive and thrive.

In a very recent, extensive 18-month study on work-life issues conducted by Deerfield-based health-care giant Baxter International, Inc., the variable employees valued most deeply was being respected as a “whole” person with a life beyond work. Being respected as a human being and not just a pair of hands involves a relationship, and that, in turn, builds trust. Sirota Consulting, a New York-based management consulting firm, asked some 4000 employees of a company what matters most to them on the job. The answer? Job satisfaction. When pay satisfaction (Business level) rated poorly but job satisfaction (Human level) remained high, only 6 percent of the employees intended to leave.

Kenneth Kovach in Employment Relations Today Vol.22, No.2 discusses a study conducted in 1946, 1981, and1995, in which employees were asked to list ten common work place rewards in order of their motivational impact. Every year the results have been the same. The top three things employees want are:

  1. Interesting work
  2. Full appreciation for the work they’ve done and
  3. A feeling of being “in” on things

These motivators form the basis for the regeneration of spirit and trust, and notice that they are all based on the Human level. In order for a manager to help an employee find interesting work, he must know the employee well enough to know what is interesting to that individual. Appreciation based on specific tasks and outcomes makes each individual feel valued and important. In fact, employees will do almost anything for a manager who appreciates their work! It is interesting that employees want to “FEEL” in on things. Sometimes management thinks they have communicated something and included employees, but when employees are asked, they have an entirely different feeling. I believe every manager should have these results posted in his or her office as a constant reminder of what their employees are seeking. If, in fact, these needs were met daily, employees would be freed up to take control of their own careers and yet still trust in the integrity of the organization.

Let’s look at some concrete ways HR professionals can help rebuild trust. In my book CARE Packages for the Workplace–Dozens of Little Things You Can Do to Regenerate Spirit at Work (McGraw-Hill, 1996) I have used the acronym CARE to demonstrate the elements of a spirited, trusting workplace.


One of the ways to rebuild trust is to make sure employees feel that they are “in on things,” and the best way to do that is to use all kinds of different, creative communication techniques so that you not only get employees’ attention but you also let them know that you are taking a new, fresh approach to including them, that things really are going to be handled differently. Here are some guidelines:

1. Be honest. Tell employees everything you possibly can, including even bad news. Over and over again, employees are saying, “Tell us the truth, even the bad news. We can handle it. What we can’t handle is the fear and uncertainty of not knowing.” Above all, NEVER EVER LIE TO EMPLOYEES. If you don’t have an answer or cannot share information, tell them the truth and let them know the reasons why you aren’t able to tell them and when you may be able to give them the answer.

When a local company went public recently, the CEO made sure they communicated even when they “couldn’t” communicate. When things had to be kept secret by law, he called meetings to explain the reasons why they couldn’t tell employees more, and he prepared them for what they would see so that when private meetings were held, they weren’t afraid. He anticipated their concerns and responded to events like stock fluctuations immediately with either a corporate wide e-mail message or voice mail message explaining what was happening. This CEO built trust during a time when trust could easily have been lost. Remember the definition of trust? “1. a) To believe in the honesty, integrity, justice of; to have confidence in.” He was honest with his employees so they trusted him.

2. Be open. Let employees know what is going on in the company financially. Not only will this build trust, but you can use it to educate employees as well. Imagine the impact on trust and teamwork if all employees could understand an annual report or balance sheet! Many cutting edge organizations are beginning to practice “Open Book Management.” In order to rebuild trust, employees must be free to ask questions and to contribute their opinions and feelings. You might even invite a frontline person to attend each senior management meeting.

3. Be human. Not only is it important to give information (Business level), but it is even more important to be aware of HOW you give the information (Human level). If you are giving bad news, keep the feelings of your audience in mind, and don’t be afraid to let your own feelings show. Above all, be willing to admit your mistakes and share what you’ve learned from them. A manager who can say, “I made a mistake, and I’m sorry” either as an individual or as a company will build immediate rapport. This creates a relationship and a trust that will hold through many dark times. Trust definition “b) to rely or depend on” (trust that this person will tell you the truth in a caring way).

4. Be enthusiastic. Employees today desperately need a new sense of purpose and hope. Believe in them and their value as well as in the mission of your organization and share this in your communications. Samuel Ullman said, “Year may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.” Trust definition “6. to expect confidently; hope.”


Create an atmosphere in which it is acceptable to have some fun. With the increased stress in our workplaces today, a little fun is vital to the health and productivity of an organization as a way to break the tension and to enjoy one another. The CFO of a company made it a point at some time before the end of each day to walk through all the suites the company occupied. He talked with employees, joked with them, and asked them how he could help. His simple action helped to create an atmosphere of informality and trust in that organization.

Make a point of appreciating people for good work, even if it is part of their job. Stephen Covey speaks of the “Emotional Bank Account:” each day in our work we get deposits and withdrawals. Whenever you appreciate an employee, you are giving him/her a deposit. Only employees with something in their emotional bank accounts will be able to do their best work!

Be consistent. Whether you are rewarding or coaching an employee, it is important to have consistent guidelines in order to rebuild trust. The most secure employee knows exactly what is expected of him or her and when they have exceeded or failed that expectation. Appreciation when they have met or exceeded expectations and consequences when they have not will build a new level of trust.


Respect must be created through relationships–getting to know one another on both the business and the human levels. While one can respect an employee’s ability and talents (Business level), it is even more important in building trust to respect the employee as a whole person (human level). Find ways for employees and managers to interact more informally and provide opportunities for employees to trade jobs, to shadow someone in another part of the company, and to participate in decision making. Practice what you preach. Don’t say one thing and do another. If there are budget cuts and layoffs, don’t buy new executive furniture. That action sends an incongruent message and will destroy what little trust is left.

Let employees know that you trust them. One of the ways you can do this is to examine the policies and procedures of the organization. Do they position managers as watchdogs and undermine trust? Often attendance policies, time sheets, and performance reviews reflect a basic attitude of distrust.

Nothing shows respect more than allowing people to be empowered to use their own best judgment. However, make sure that along with the permission you also give them protection when they goof. Use those goofs or “mis-takes” as coaching opportunities, not as times to beat up on the employee. The first time they goof and the way you handle it will determine if they ever risk making an empowered decision again. Trust definition “4. to allow to do something without fear of the outcome.”

Treat employees the way you want them to treat your customers. The CEO of a company told a colleague recently, “I want the meetings I hold for my employees to be every bit as good as the ones I hold for my customers.” He applied this in every detail–the location, the food, the lighting, the speakers, and even the sound system. Those employees felt valued and respected which, in turn, builds trust.

Help employees find a sense of purpose and importance in their work. Remind them that “they are the organization,” and that they have choices in every interaction they have to create a positive experience for someone as well as a great reputation for the whole organization. Encourage employees to add a personal signature to their work, to find a way to put their special touch on the work they do. An airline pilot always writes 5 or 6 thank you notes to random customers on each flight to thank them for their business while a grocery bagger puts a “thought for the day” in each person’s groceries he bags. This personal signature adds a new creative spirit and importance to their work which , in tuen, impacts the whole organization.


Help all levels of your organization try to “walk in the other person’s shoes” and to respect and honor differences. Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence writes about his concern that many people today are spending more time in front of a computer screen than interacting with others, and as a result, many of them are either not experiencing or are forgetting the empathy that comes from sharing another’s experience. Be an encourager, begin a “Kindness campaign,” get employees involved with community projects, set up programs to involve employees’ families, listen with your heart as well as with your head. Most importantly, provide your employees with as much training as possible on both business level and human level skills. As you do this, you not only build trust by showing that you value them but you also help them to take responsibility for their own careers.

Above all, HR professionals must keep hope alive in the organization. Celebrate anything you can and try to always focus on the good things that are happening. Encourage social gatherings and informal interactions of different levels in the organization such as support groups, discussion groups, and classes. One company randomly selects 10 employees a week to have lunch with each senior manager on Friday of that week until they have worked through the entire company. These interactions will create relationships which will help rebuild trust and confidence.

Hyler Bracy in his book Managing from the Heart says that all employees are crying out for the behaviors that make up the acronym “HEART:”

H ear and understand me.
E ven if you disagree with me, please don’t make me wrong,
A cknowledge the greatness within me.
R emember to look for my loving intentions.
ell me the truth with compassion.

All of these requests fall on the human level and lead to caring, sharing relationships and the rebuilding of trust.

Now go back and look at the two beliefs you wrote down about people and human nature. Are they based on a positive or a negative perception of people? In order for our organizations to survive the turbulence of the 90’s, we must return to a basic belief in the goodness of man, in man’s innate desire to do meaningful work, and in the dignity, honor, and uniqueness of each human being. If your beliefs are negative, you will never be able to engender trust in your employees in the new business environment. However, beliefs can be changed, so if your focus is one of mistrust, you can choose to rebuild your own trust level. Then you can begin to rebuild the trust in your organization.

© Barbara Glanz Communications. All Rights Reserved.

Barbara Glanz Biography

A member of the prestigious Speaker Hall of Fame and one of fewer than 700 Certified Speaking Professionals worldwide, Barbara Glanz, CSP, CPAE, works with organizations to improve morale, retention and service and with people who want to rediscover the joy in their work and in their lives. She is the first speaker on record to have spoken on all 7 continents and in all 50 states. Known as "the business speaker who speaks to your heart as well as to your head," Barbara is the author of twelve books including The Simple Truths of Service Inspired by Johnny the Bagger®, CARE Packages for the Workplace, and 180 Ways to Spread Contagious Enthusiasm™. Voted "best keynote presenter you have heard or used" by Meetings & Conventions Magazine, Barbara uses her Master’s degree in Adult Learning to design programs that cause behavior change. She lives and breathes her personal motto: “Spreading Contagious Enthusiasm™” and can be reached at and

Home | About | Hiring Barbara | Programs | Video FAQ | Videos | Products | Articles & Ideas | Blog | Contact