Managers help build employees’ trust in CEOs

by Hannah Go14 Jul 2017
When HR professionals talk about trust and empowerment, it usually assumes a top-to-bottom approach: managers and senior leaders are called to demonstrate trust in their employees by assigning them key responsibilities and empowering them to work autonomously.

But it’s not certain how much time is spent discussing the level of trust employees have in their managers, or much less in their CEOs, whom most employees probably don’t even see regularly.

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer survey revealed that just 37% of respondents across the globe rated their CEOs as “extremely” or “very” credible, representing a 12% fall from the previous year.

One way for C-suite leaders to enhance their credibility is to focus on improving the relationships between employees and their immediate managers, according to a study by Ashley Fulmer and Cheri Ostroff, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The premise is that trust doesn’t just trickle down, but up as well, said Fulmer in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

The study focused on the idea of trust transfer – a comparative approach that explains how trust in a familiar entity serves as the basis for gauging the level of trust in a new or less-familiar entity. It tested employees on why and how they trust their frontline leaders, and whether or not that trust extends to senior organizational leaders.

“In general, employees have many more day-to-day interactions with their frontline leaders and supervisors than with senior organizational leaders and know them better, observing how they deal with problems, implement strategy, and communicate with their teams,” said Fulmer.

 The study also applied the “group value model,” which says that fair treatment by leaders is taken by employees as a sign that they are considered valued members of the organization.

Results showed that trust trickled up in cases where frontline managers were seen as “more fair” because they demonstrated “high procedural justice, such as making decisions in an unbiased manner and listening to followers’ concerns,” said Fulmer.  

While trust in frontline leaders can lead to better trust in senior leaders, the two “trusts” are still different in scope and effect, according to the study. Employees have to reach the latter level of trust in order to significantly improve the overall well-being of the organization. When employees trust their top leaders, they end up internalizing organizational goals, and the positive effects go beyond their performance and behaviors in relation to their frontline managers.

Fulmer encouraged senior leaders to provide frontline leaders more opportunities and resources to hone their “trust-building skills,” such as showing care for employees’ well-being, demonstrating fairness in decision-making and in giving rewards and recognition, and maintaining work integrity.


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