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Building a Culture of Trust

Published Thursday Sep 3, 2020

Author Charles Cautley and Sherri Malouf

Building a Culture of Trust

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, many business leaders found themselves in emergency mode trying to figure out how to remain viable and manage a workforce that had suddenly become remote. Now they are dealing with questions of how to safely reopen and how or if to call workers back to their workplace.

This is a test of corporate cultures. How successfully businesses meet the challenges of this new normal will depend on the culture of trust and openness they have developed.

Long before the pandemic, research conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management in 2013 found that one of the most effective tactics for attracting, retaining, and rewarding the best employees was maintaining a culture of trust, open communication and fairness.

Harvard researcher and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies Paul J. Zak, author of  “The Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High Performing Companies,” found people at high-trust companies report less stress, more energy at work, higher productivity, fewer sick days, more engagement, more satisfaction with their lives, and less burnout.

And Deloitte Consulting’s Talent 2020 survey shows 62% of employees who plan to stay with their current employer report high levels of trust in their corporate leadership.

The pandemic has only heightened the need for leaders to cultivate a culture of trust and openness. We have suffered a shock to our norms that has shown the vulnerability of all leaders to guide and protect. More so than ever, change is the one constant and uncertainty remains high. Health and financial risk dominate concerns, work colleagues are more remote, there are fewer opportunities to bond in person, and international tensions have grown.

Trust and openness create loyalty and belief; they cut across cultural and international boundaries; and they encourage employees to listen, be creative, adopt change, focus on the task and drive results. In all, creating a sense of trust and openness lowers stress, increases agility, and improves results.

Influencing the Culture
Personal power and positive influence are the two critical leadership qualities required to quickly restore a culture of trust and openness. Personal power is about who a leader is as a person—one’s values, empathy, authenticity, positiveness, and open-mindedness. Personal power to affect change is linked to a leaders’ ability to listen and be flexible; seek opportunity; model respect, patience and honesty; and to take on the hard issues for the good of the team. It requires self-awareness, confidence, vulnerability, and a strong commitment to walk the talk.

These qualities engender goodwill and trust between leaders and their employees, peers and managers. They allow leaders to take risks and encourage others to take risks with a sense of support and encouragement. Also, openness will flourish as fear subsides and success is recognized.

Positive influence is based on a leader’s ability to adapt their behavior based on different people and situations. Leading research found that people who easily switch their approach to varying personalities will expand their vision of what they can accomplish through others and obtain higher levels of trust and performance.

Opportunity to influence positively is continual. Whenever there are objectives to meet, leaders are placed into a position of needing to influence those around them. Every touch point with an employee while working to achieve a goal is an opportunity to build trust and open relationships.

Leaders who excel at positive influencing achieve their objectives while nurturing important relationships. That sounds simple, but in practice it can be extremely challenging. Many people achieve their objectives at the expense of important relationships, damaging trust and openness. Others habitually avoid challenging situations, sacrificing their objectives and personal power. Leaders build positive influence by always making the extra effort to maintain strong on-going relationships with all parts of the organization.

Personal power and positive influence go hand-in-hand; in fact, they feed each other. One requires self-awareness and courage to improve while the other requires self-motivation to learn and apply. Both require effort. Commitment to both will create the momentum that will help leaders to quickly build an organization’s culture of trust and openness, which, in turn, will increase the agility of the business and the results it attains as it emerges from this crisis.

Charles Cautley is CEO and Sherri Malouf is chair and principal of Situation Management Systems, a Milford-based firm that develops management and leadership development programs with a major focus on influence and change management. For more information, visit

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