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Is Trust at the Core of Employee Engagement?

Is Trust at the Core of Employee Engagement?This recent article from HBR, written by Paul Zak at the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, is fascinating. His research group studied trust and the brain, looking at a variety of elements related to building trust and measuring its reciprocation.

In reading this article, I couldn’t help but notice that almost everything Paul discusses about creating and maintaining trust are also fundamental elements of employee engagement. In fact, good employee engagement surveys will measure these elements.

Think of your company. Do you ever wonder why some people are trusted while others are not? Or, which behaviours in a “boss” cause employees to lose trust in the management and leadership of a company?

Top Leadership Behaviours that Destroy Trust

In the course of my work on employee engagement, I can confidently say that a lack of trust occurs when:

  1. Leaders feel a need to be in control.
  2. Leaders don’t disclose all information needed for employees to be comfortable with challenges facing them.
  3. Leaders don’t walk the talk.
  4. Leaders don’t initiate trust with employees.
  5. Leaders simply don’t think employees have valid opinions.
  6. Leaders have an inability to engage in constructive dialogue due to their need to be in control.
  7. Leaders never admit to mistakes or be vulnerable.
  8. Leaders never take the time to build relationships with employees.
  9. Leaders don’t believe that employees need recognition.

Equally interesting in this study – the two elements of trust that scored the lowest in Paul’s survey of employees were the same two elements that are often rated the lowest by employees in my engagement surveys. This means that workplaces and leaders are not doing a good job of these things.

These important elements are:

  1. Recognition: Regular planned recognition and reward events, regular recognition in the course of work, and peer-to-peer recognition.
  2. Transparency: Sharing information openly.

Training Engaging Leaders Who Engender Trust

I run a bootcamp for leaders on the topic of building an engaging leadership style, the basis of which is formed by the same concepts Paul talks about in his article. At my bootcamp, I provide practical take-aways that leaders can put into action immediately.

Training courses often fail because we attend, leave with good intentions (but without enough tangible actionables), and then the regular challenges at work swamp our good intentions. The emotions we personally experience at work overwhelm our ability to change our behaviours.

This is why I have found that the most effective way to build these skills into the everyday behaviour of leaders is through coaching. Attending training is good for some parts of building leadership capability, but having sustained contact that asks the tough questions and works to help change behaviours is critical to success.


Workplace Engagement Insights will help your organization build a high performance culture of engaged employees and great leaders that they trust. Get a free consultation with me to discuss your business needs.

Start improving employee engagement immediately. Download my FREE cheatsheet for Improving Employee Engagement in Just 10 minutes.

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Written by Dwight Lacey

Dwight Lacey

Dwight is the President at Workplace Engagement Insights. He leads Workplace Engagement Insights with a clear understanding of the latest employee engagement research, survey best practices, and leadership styles that create successful businesses.

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