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How to Build Employee Trust with Better Decision-Making Processes

It’s not automatic. Employees don’t instantly trust their bosses, management teams, or each other. Employee trust must be earned, preserved, and valued.

Decision-making processes greatly influence how much employee do (or don’t!) trust their employers. In part, that trust is based on whether or not employees have participated in the evaluation of options. Without a voice in decision-making, employees are less likely to trust decisions. 

Chicken or Egg? Does decision-making lead to trust? Or does trust lead to more inclusivity in decisions made? 

Graphic Showing Making Decision TogetherIn days of yore, when companies were patriarchal and more hierarchical, employees had no choice. Decisions were made behind closed doors and marching orders were issued without explanation. People punched the clock, did their assigned task work, and left at the end of an 8-hour shift. 

With the dawn of the knowledge economy, work shifted. Employees are expected to make intellectual contributions. Task work is no longer enough to satisfy job requirements. It’s no longer enough to satisfy employees, either.

It’s no longer enough to make decisions (even good ones) behind closed doors. Employees are suspicious of and resistant to decisions that don’t include them or consider the impact on them. They mistrust the wisdom of decisions that fail to involve the people who are closest to the work.

Making decisions without including employees can lead to a mistrust of management.

This is true even when management consistently makes good decisions that positively impact employees. In an effort to protect employees’ time and/or to shelter them from meetings, employers often make decisions at the manager level or above. 

Some of those management-made decisions are sound. But the skepticism from the frontlines is palpable any time a decision is handed down without consultation beforehand. That skepticism produces unproductive chatter, second-guessing, reservations, and outright resistance. Ushering in change becomes slower and harder than it has to be.

Management teams that habitually omit frontline employees from decisions that affect them risk disenfranchising employees. Few employees say “They made a decision that affected my work, and I’m glad they didn’t bother me with the details. I’m just here to follow orders.” More employees say “I’m sick of being left out of important decisions that affect my work. They treat me like a robot!”

There’s one more inherent flaw in making decisions behind closed doors. It signals that people can’t be trusted to handle the discussion and provide useful insights to aid in decision-making. Leaving people out of important dialogue pushes them away rather than drawing them in. 

To facilitate employee trust, management teams should always get the opinions and ideas of those who are most impacted by decisions that will be made. This is not about using popular vote to simplify decision-making. It’s about dignifying and trusting those who are going to be affected by the decisions made by the appropriate people.  

Decision-making is one of the 12 Dimensions of Trust being covered in this CONNECT2Lead series. Other dimensions, like availability, loyalty, and fairness will also impact the way people feel about participating in decision-making. To assess yourself on all 12 Dimensions of Trust, download this free tool from People First Productivity Solutions.  

Employee Trust Is Influenced by Engagement and Inclusivity

Including people in the decisions that affect them will ennoble them. It will improve acceptance of decisions – even the ones that weren’t their preferred course of action. It will also accelerate adoption of changes needed to enact the decision. 

Leaving people out reduces their commitment. They’ll say things like “I would’ve told them it wouldn’t work, but nobody asked me.”

When people are forced into a commitment, they’ll do the bare minimum. And they’ll only do it as long as someone is monitoring what they do. The lack of internal, self-driven commitment will be superficial and unsustainable. True, deep, lasting commitment comes from feeling heard, considered, and included.

Research demonstrates that people support decisions they participated in regardless of agreement with the final decision. Having been heard and considered is what increases the commitment. 

Inclusive decision-making processes build employee trust and ensure commitment. But that’s not all! 

Inclusive decision-making also increases employee engagement. The Leadership Practices Inventory® (LPI®) measures the frequency of key behaviors that make leaders more effective. It cross-compares the frequency of these behaviors to the level of employee engagement experienced by people reporting directly to a manager. The research demonstrates unequivocally that when leaders more frequently “involve people in the decisions that directly impact their job performance,” engagement levels soar. 

The essence of employee engagement is “an emotional connection to the organization that causes employees to apply additional discretionary effort to the work they do.” 

Additional discretionary effort is what yields higher productivity, customer satisfaction, and revenue. Every employer wants that!

Notice, though, that there’s a cause-and-effect equation to engagement. You don’t get the additional discretionary effort unless you have the emotional connection. The real work, then, of boosting engagement lies in building emotional connections. 

And that brings us back to trust and inclusivity. Without trust, emotional connections are unlikely. When people feel sidelined and are not included, their emotional connection wanes. Their trust is replaced by skepticism and, perhaps, cynicism. 

Done right, employers produce the virtuous circle of Trust > Inclusion > Emotional Connection > Commitment > Trust.  

The Problem with Most Decisions and How They Invite Mistrust 

The Ladder of Inference (see diagram below) explains how decision-making often leads to mistrust. Subconsciously and internally, we take this pathway to make most decisions.

  1. A set of facts, perhaps incomplete, is considered. 
  2. As we take in the available and obvious facts, we selectively filter that reality. Our filters are comprised of our personal experiences, unconscious biases, comfort zone, education, upbringing, resources, and much more. 
  3. We interpret facts and what they mean based on what we’ve filtered, our emotional responses to those facts, and the meaning we infuse based on our filters.
  4. With all that subconscious processing, we then make assumptions and apply them. We see our own assumptions as facts and are no longer differentiating what’s real vs. what we perceive.
  5. We draw conclusions based on assumptions (which are based on interpretation of filtered facts).
  6. With those conclusions, we determine what we believe. We form strong opinions that we’re likely to vigorously defend. We become closed off to alternate interpretations that challenge our beliefs. 
  7. Finally, we take actions and make decisions based on our beliefs. They seem “right” to us because we based our decisions on thought and analysis without recognizing that our process was mostly subjective and was not inclusive. 

building employee trust

Others are walking up the Ladder of Inference as they draw conclusions, too. At the filtering and interpretations phases, they have vastly different inputs and often draw different conclusions because they form different beliefs. 

That’s where conflict and mistrust come into play. 

To avoid getting caught up in the Ladder of Inference trap, try this instead:

  1. Keep an open mind as you invite more facts and perspectives in scoping the problem and considering the alternatives.
  2. Challenge filters, especially your own. Contextualize them and give them appropriate weight instead of exaggerating their importance.
  3. Get a diversity of thought and more voices in when interpreting the facts and filters everyone has presented. Acknowledge emotional responses, and differentiate them from fact-based reasoning. 
  4. Instead of making assumptions, check yourself and check each other. Is this real? Is it logical? Is it valid? Is it relevant?
  5. As conclusions are beginning to form, collaborate to ensure that they are solid. 
  6. Form beliefs together. If there is still significant disagreement, explore it. Maintain an open mind and model this openness for others.
  7. Review what you’ve done to make sure you’ve balanced the naturally subjective process with a more objective and more inclusive one.

employee trust

This is much easier when you add two steps -- one at the beginning and one at the end.

At the onset of any decision-making, define what a good decision will include and what problem it will solve. Determine what the criteria should be for evaluating any possible decision. Know what they most important, highest priority criterion will be. Gauge the quality of possible decisions against these criteria.

At the end of your decision-making process, lay out the rationale. Explain how the final decision is the one that best meets the criteria. Be transparent so that others are more likely to trust the decision.  

As you’re transparently sharing your rationale, involving others, and making decisions that are objective, you’re building trust.