If You Build Trust, Engagement Will Come

Two women looking at a laptop

"Trust matters because it's a huge contributor to employee motivation and employee engagement, and those in turn have a huge impact on organizational performance." - Jordan Birnbaum, VP and Chief Behavioral Economist at ADP.

When employees trust their managers, they are usually happier, more engaged and perform their jobs more effectively. To better understand how building trust with employees improves the performance of teams and benefits the organization as a whole, we talked with Jordan Birnbaum, VP and Chief Behavioral Economist at ADP.

In Part 1 of this two-part conversation, Birnbaum explores the importance of employee trust in today's workplace.

Q: What exactly does employee trust mean?

Birnbaum: "Ultimately, how we define trust means relatively little. The way individual employees define trust is what matters because they are the ones whose trust we need to build.

Employees define trust in a lot of different ways. For employees, trust could mean believing that someone is speaking well of you or looking out for your best interests when you're not around. It also involves having trust in someone's judgment. You could have trust in someone doing the right thing. Employees want to have trust in how someone will create opportunities for them.

Essentially, employee trust is all about guessing what's going to happen in the future and making predictions about a leader's behavior."

Q: Why does establishing trust matter in the development of leaders and their relationship with employees?

Birnbaum: "Trust matters because it's a huge contributor to employee motivation and employee engagement, and those in turn have a huge impact on organizational performance. Employee motivation is best summarized by the question, 'What's in it for me?' While employee engagement is best summarized by the question, 'What's in it for us?' They both matter a great deal in getting the best performance from teams.

Understanding the importance of building trust with employees requires us first to think about how it benefits the organization as a whole. After all, if you want anything to stick, you have to win over senior leadership.

Over the years, our understanding of how employee motivation and engagement impact organizational performance has grown a great deal. And the data tells us that as employees become more motivated and engaged, all of the most meaningful metrics for organizational performance improve dramatically.

Gallup's annual "State of the American Workplace" shows that when companies succeed in driving employee engagement, they become significantly more profitable — 21% if memory serves. Customer satisfaction is 10% higher and employee retention is 59% better. We even see impacts in less obvious places, like workplace safety and innovation.

So once you can make the case that we ought to care about this stuff, there's a natural next question: What is responsible for driving (or diminishing) employee motivation and engagement? Turns out that trust is a huge factor."

Q: How can organizations develop leaders who value employee trust?

Birnbaum: "If the first step is getting the organization to care about building trust with employees, then the second step is getting managers to care about it. The fastest way there is to help managers realize that their success as leaders will ultimately be determined by how they build trust with their teams. (There are loads of behavioral approaches to maximize the impact of this message, but that's a topic for another discussion.)

From there, we find yet another inherent challenge. Human beings are wired to want to find simple solutions or a set of behaviors that essentially say, 'If I do these things, I'm covered.' And that is very understandable, but it's also not very realistic. It's just not how people are wired. So while it's not rocket science for people to identify generally trustworthy behavior, it is going to vary from person to person on the team."

Q. What do managers need to do to build employee trust?

Birnbaum: "At a high level, showing interest is always a good approach, because interest means you care. Caring breeds trust, as the knowledge that you care helps guide their guesses about your future intentions and behaviors.

Next, it is important to understand how their teams are experiencing them as leaders. If (in a given instance) they believe they are being supportive, but their teams are experiencing them as critical, that's really important to know.

Perhaps what's most important is for leaders to get to know their people individually, and to understand what matters most to them. This is particularly impactful around other motivators and engagers, like the development of new skills or how they like to be recognized for their work.

So understanding our employees helps in two meaningful ways. Firstly, demonstrating an interest is in and of itself a really positive thing, setting up all sorts of terrific dynamics. Secondly, those understandings can shape our approaches to give us the best shot at building trust with every member on the team."

Part 2 of this two-part series will further explore the ways employee trust impacts leaders, and offers actionable advice leaders can follow to become more trustworthy and improve employee engagement through trust.

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Read other leadership articles by Jordan Birnbaum.