How to repair the trust gap

One in three employees don’t trust their employer. As a CEO, here’s what you can do about it…

I recently came across a 2016 study conducted by Edelman where they’d surveyed 33,000 people in 28 countries. From it, they discovered: One in three people don’t trust their employer.

One in three people don’t trust their employer.

I found this statistic astounding. As I read on, what surprised me even more was that only 24% of employees in this study believe their CEO exhibited highly ethical behavior.

Clearly, there is a trust gap between leadership teams and employees.

This alarms me because, as a CEO myself, I consider trust to be the bedrock of a successful team and a successful company.

If you don’t trust your employees and your employees don’t trust you, everything fails. You move slower because you’re questioning every move the other person makes. You find yourself micromanaging your employees, unintentionally weighing down the speed of progress and stifling employee morale.

As an employee, if you don’t trust your leadership team, you’re less likely to be inspired to work as hard or come up with innovative ideas. What’s the point if you don’t trust your manager to recognize you fairly or hear you out? You’re also more likely to withhold information that could benefit the company — whether that’s noticing a trend in the market, or observing something worthwhile a competitor is doing.

Perhaps it’s best put by this 2013 Harvard Business Review article:

“Without a foundation of trust, people in the organization may comply outwardly with a leader’s wishes, but they’re much less likely to conform privately — to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organization in a sincere, lasting way. Workplaces lacking in trust often have a culture of “every employee for himself,” in which people feel that they must be vigilant about protecting their interests.”

Even further, in the Edelman study, they found that employees who trust in their leadership team are more likely to advocate for their company and its product and services.

To build more of this trust with your employees, the author of the study and the EVP and US Practice Chair for Employee Engagement, Christopher Hannegan, gave a clear recommendation. He said:

“Our study shows employees want to really understand who their CEOs are at a personal level, including the values that drive them, at levels higher than the general public want to understand CEOs…Employees want to know their CEOs as people.”

Employees want to know their CEOs as people.

It’s that (seemingly) simple. The anecdote to the trust gap is to open up more as a person.

Of course, the execution of this is what gets tricky. It’s one thing to say “Yes, I want to open up more as a leader and as a person”… and a totally separate thing to actually do it.

How do you go about sharing more of yourself? And what exactly do employees want to know? Here are a few places where you can start…

Share what you’re working on

One of the most common sentiments I hear from the employees we serve through Know Your Team is that they feel in the dark about what their leadership team is doing. Especially, if their CEO is often out of the office traveling, or the team is remote or has multiple offices. Employees want to understand on a high-level what’s on your plate as a CEO. It gives them more context about why it’s a taking you a while to respond to one of their emails, or why a certain initiative in the company was kicked off. So share where you’re traveling, what are your big to-dos, etc. Many CEOs do this in the form of a monthly or weekly CEO address that they’ll type in an email or even film a short video on their laptop.

Share your personal values

What matters to you as a CEO? What inspires you? Who are your personal heroes? The Edelman study revealed how 80% of employees wish their CEOs discussed their own personal values. Consider discussing this the next time you’re talking about the company’s values. For example, when you welcome a new hire to the team, feel encouraged to reveal your own personal values as well.

Share the obstacles you’ve overcome + your personal success story

Who are the people who’ve influenced your life the most? What’s the hardest thing you’ve faced? What are you most grateful for? What do you do to stay resilient? The Edelman study showed that 73% of employees want to know the obstacles you’ve overcome, and 68% want to hear your personal success story. You might open up about this the next time you take an employee to lunch. Or it might be a personal anecdote you mention when you explain to the company why a certain decision was made.

Share your personal hobbies

How do you spend your time outside of work? What’s a new skill you’ve been trying to pick up? What makes you laugh? What you’ve been reading lately? The more you can provide a clear picture to your employees of who you are as a person, the greater connection they’ll feel. Don’t hesitate to share these things the next time you’re at your company’s happy hour.

Share the long-term societal impact you want to have

The study found that 68% of employees believed CEOs focused too much on short-term financial results, and not enough on positive long-term impact. Even more interesting is that 8 out of 10 employees believed that their CEOs should share how they feel on societal issues such as income inequality, public policy discussions, and personal views on societal issues. Something to chew on as you look to be more transparent as a leader.


For some of you, the idea of sharing all of this (or even some of this) feels nerve-wracking. Perhaps you’re an introvert (like myself!) who’s fairly private and doesn’t really like disclosing this kind of stuff with anyone.

That’s totally fine. You don’t want to force it. But I might suggest starting small. Perhaps start with just giving a monthly update on what you’re working on in the company. And gradually move to sharing some of your personal hobbies or what you did over the weekend. You want to do this in a natural way, and you want to sound like yourself.

For others of you, you might feel like all of this sharing is too much. How much do my employees really want to know? Do they really care that I like going to yoga on Sundays or that Kevin Garnett is a personal hero of mine?

It might feel trivial. It might even feel like extra work. But we’re humans. Finding points of commonality and better understanding who we are as people are important parts of being able to work with others — and it’s fundamental to building trust. You can’t build trust without being vulnerable, without sharing something of yourself first. You have to give first, to get.

As a leader, that should start with you.


Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.


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