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Trusting Employees vs. Waiting ‘til Trust Is Earned

Work from home. The Great Resignation. Record-high levels of employee disengagement, burnout and low morale. Demands for higher pay, work/life balance, faster promotions, and competitive benefit packages that are increasingly difficult to meet. Trusting employees who make these demands isn’t always easy. 

At the same time they’re expecting more, it may seem that employees are giving less. They call in sick more often, take longer breaks, are less engaged and more likely to leave than in years past, and complete less work in a typical shift. That may make it even more difficult for employers to trust employees. 

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Add to the mix that not trusting employees is a surefire recipe for disenfranchising them and exacerbating all the problems cited above. Employees want a sense of belonging in the organizations they work for. They want to be seen as contributing, valuable team members. They want opportunities to grow. A lack of trust keeps employers from meeting these needs. 

But, Wait, Trust Has to Be Earned, Right?

Many organizations have instituted a 3-month probationary period for new employees. Others churn through employees quickly, moving them out if they don’t quickly demonstrate their skill and will to do the job well. Onboarding new employees is usually a one-direction process of disseminating information that sets policies and teaches practices without considering individual needs, learning styles, or prior experience. 

From the start, then, employer/employee relationships are based on an implied understanding that the employee bears the burden of earning trust, adopting company ways, and demonstrating fit in the new role. No matter how lacking the onboarding program, training, or support is for new employees, those newbies are expected to prove themselves. 

This is a classic case of “trust has to be earned.”  It’s a one-sided and unfair approach to genuinely gauging whether or not a person is trustworthy. Most new employees who fail do so because they are not taught in ways that fit their learning needs or are not given clear expectations for what they need to do to be successful. Sadly, in many organizations, new hire training is delayed or lacking completely. 

Side note: Turnabout is fair play. Employees expect (and rightly so!) that their managers and employers will earn their trust, too. New employees lose faith in organizations with sloppy business practices and inconsistent standards. When they’re trying their best to learn and fit in, trust is breached when they discover that support is lacking and they’ve been abandoned to sink or swim on their own.

The “trust has to be earned” principle shows up elsewhere in organizations, too. It’s not just applied to new employees. As people enter new collaborations, they may be tentative about trusting others. Managers may withhold stretch assignments or delegation of new tasks because they are waiting for proof of ability rather than providing opportunities to develop those abilities. 

Once trust has been violated, even inadvertently, re-establishing it can be a long, drawn-out process of “trust must be earned.” Our once-burned-twice-shy defenses kick in and keep us from extending the opportunities that would give someone a chance to reprove that they are trustworthy. 

Throughout this CONNECT2Lead Blog series about the 12 Dimensions of Trust, we’ve examined 12 causes for mistrust and the accompanying ways to both demonstrate trustworthiness and to consider others’ trustworthiness. Knowing that an awareness of all 12 dimensions is the best offensive strategy, we’ve encouraged readers to consider that some breaches of trust are inadvertent and less onerous than their interpretation of them. To assess yourself on the 12 Dimensions of Trust, download this free tool from People First Productivity Solutions.  

Accurate Self-Assessment Gives Others Confidence that They Can Trust You

A new hire who demonstrates a solid understanding of their own strengths and humbly acknowledges their own gaps will earn trust faster. 

New employees who brashly dive in without understanding their own skills or knowledge gaps invite mistrust. They’re more likely to make mistakes, too, that validate that mistrust. Although they might initially be viewed favorably for their confidence and initiative, the lack of self-awareness about their own limitations will cast doubt on their overall capabilities. 

New employees who hold back and show a lack of confidence also invite mistrust. Hired for their education and experience, excessive tentativeness casts doubt on their overall capabilities, too, when the employee doesn’t put that education and experience into practice. 

Employees who overpromise and underdeliver are similarly violating trust. This dimension of trust, Accurate Self-Assessment, applies in any situation where someone over- or under-represents what they can capably do or what they know.

A failure to use your voice can lead to a vague sense of mistrust about your actual commitment. Out of a fear of saying the wrong thing or a preference to fully form thoughts before sharing them, you may be – without realizing it – seen as someone who isn’t fully invested and is opting out of group discussions. While you may feel that you don’t have anything of value to add, others need to hear from you in meetings and discussions. Your self-assessment that you don’t have anything useful to add is quite likely invalid. Even an affirmation or agreement or a question raised can influence the conversation and demonstrate that you’re not checked out. 

Admitting, candidly what you aren’t able to do is a way to build trust. Knowing your own limitations and not trying to “fake it ‘til you make it” will cause others to believe you won’t overreach and put them at risk, too. 

This does not mean you should display false humility as a ploy to get compliments and encouragement. The “aw, shucks” opening that leads into others heaping praise on you may feel good in the moment. But it quickly wears thin as people learn that you’re fishing for compliments and not accurately assessing your own abilities. 

At the onset of a new project or when asked to take on a new task, break it down. Let others know what parts you are genuinely confident about doing and which parts you’ll need additional guidance or help to complete. State this matter-of-factly and with the intention to convey an accurate self-assessment. 

Side note: This, too, applies in reverse. Employers should be careful not to oversell their commitment to employees, and managers need to manage expectations about promotions and development opportunities. An inaccurate self-assessment of what the organization can and will do for the employee may get a seat filled when hiring. But it will almost certainly cause the person in the seat to feel duped and disengaged once the truth comes out.   

Trusting Employees AND Equipping Them with the Tools for Maintaining Your Trust


To get to a point where you’re able to trust more employees more quickly and more solidly, the following proactive initiatives are advised:

Behavioral Interviewing based on Competencies

Do you have selected competencies for each job role so that you can evaluate candidates by these competencies? If not, you’re bound to have disappointing results when hiring. Once you do have competencies, you can use behavioral interviewing to screen candidates and reduce the likelihood that they “sell themselves” in the interview by overstating qualifications. 

Understanding of Adult Learning Principles

Train your trainers about the differing learning needs and styles of adults. Orientation and routine training isn’t reaching everyone if it’s always delivered exactly the same way and/or doesn’t have a good mix of learning modalities. 

Clear Job Role Expectations

The job description is a good starting point. It should be updated and expanded upon for people already in the job. Additionally, it should be considerably clearer to breakdown umbrella terms like “other duties as assigned” or “ensures customer satisfaction.” When an employee has clarity about what’s actually expected, they have a better chance of accurately self-assessing whether or not they can perform a task. 

Performance and Professional Standards

You need both. Performance standards codify what is required in a job role and how much of it needs to be done. These should be formal and fair across all like jobs. Professional standards codify how the work is to be done and how employees are to interact with each other and with customers. Both can be barriers to long-term success, so sharing them is a way to demonstrate what the organization expects. 

Transparent Processes for Development and Promotion 

Don’t make it a top secret process or an arbitrary choice that reeks of favoritism. Instead, create pathways (using competencies) and communicate frequently (not just in the annual review) about what it takes to be promoted. Create opportunities for continual development like mentoring, job shadowing, rotational and stretch assignments, and courses on soft skills and transferable skills. 

Enablement of Employees

Enabling means to provide someone with resources, time, skills, and confidence to do what they’ve been asked. Adequate budget, task prioritization to free up time for the new task and the training needed for all boost confidence within the employee. Letting them know you believe they can do it is also enabling. 

Ennoblement of Employees

Ennobling means to make others feel worthy or important and to make them feel that their work and contributions are valued. Authentic praise, inclusivity, inviting input, and genuinely caring about the individual (not just the work product) are all ennobling behaviors. 

By equipping employees and entrusting them with meaningful work that dignifies their abilities, you’ll create a culture of trust where people thrive. When you see an employee over- or under- stating their abilities, let them know that this is not necessary and that it has an impact on others’ ability to trust them. With any breach of trust, a similar conversation is the best remedy for eradicating the behavior and getting back to mutual trust. 

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