LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2019 • Volume 09 • Number 06

Trust Is a 2-Way Street

November 15, 2019 | by Debra Wood, R.N.

In building a happy and healthy workplace culture, trust can never be taken for granted.

People may take trust for granted, but in reality, management needs to work at it. Employees who trust give their best performance in serving residents or clients.

“Trust is the foundation for any successful, healthy relationship,” says Michelle Baldwin Henderson, chief human resources officer at United Methodist Retirement Communities (UMRC) in Chelsea, MI, which was named a great place to work by Forbes. “It’s important for our team members to feel valued and trust us, so they feel safe and provide the best care to our residents and participants.”

Denise and Doris
Doris (right), a participant in The Huron Valley PACE in Ypsilanti, MI, with her daughter Denise, who works for the Huron Valley Ambulance service that provides transportation to and from the PACE Center. United Methodist Retirement Communities has been named a “Great Place to Work” by Forbes.


If employees are disengaged, they may not be as present for residents.

“In the world of senior living, the care and support of elders and residents is at stake,” says Penny Cook, president/CEO of the Pioneer Network, based in Rochester, NY. “High turnover leads to staff members not knowing residents well, which means the quality of care and support provided suffers.”

Scott Lester, Ph.D., professor of Management + Marketing at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, conducted research that found employees will work harder if they feel management trusts them.

“If employers fail to communicate their trust in employees often enough, trust may erode,” Lester says. “If you feel your employer is supporting you, you want to work hard for the organization and put forth great customer service,” Lester says.

Research by the communication consulting firm Edelman Intelligence in New York City has found people who trust their employers are more loyal to the organization, are more likely to advocate, are more likely to be committed and to do their best to help the organization achieve its goals, and are more engaged than people who do not trust management, says David Bersoff, Ph.D., senior vice president and head of global thought leadership research at Edelman.

Additionally, someone working in a low-trust environment does not want to take risks because of consequences for failing, says Holly H. Brower, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Business at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.

“It’s hard to run an organization without trust,” adds Cara Silletto, MBA, with the consulting firm Crescendo Strategies in Jeffersonville, IN. “Leaders [often] do not realize the employer-employee relationship must be mutually beneficial.”

Defining Trust

“There are 3 types of trust,” Bersoff says. “These are trust in an organization’s ability, trust in an organization’s intentions, and trust in an organization’s integrity.”

He adds that “trust is key to smooth and successful change management,” giving management flexibility to evolve.

“Trust is something you have to focus on and it’s a multifaceted concept,” he says.

Research shows that people base their impressions of whether managers are trustworthy based on their ability, benevolence, and integrity, Brower says. Employers should know when staff members are going through a rough spot and show they care.

“Managers should do what they say and live by the same principles they hold others to,” Brower says. “They should model the behavior they want.”

“Trust is the belief that the other party will do the right thing, do what they said they would do, and are telling the truth,” Silletto says. “It is built over time.”

“Trust lies at the heart of a cohesive functioning team,” says Trevor Wichner, M.S., executive director of Knute Nelson/Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, MN. “Trust is the confidence that team members’ intentions are good.”

Warnings of a Low-Trust Environment

“If you do not have trust, so many symptoms come out,” Henderson says. That may include a lack of employees willing to give feedback.

“I think the first signs are increasing employee turnover and a culture where people feel they cannot openly share their opinions, thoughts, and suggestions,” Cook says. “This leads to staff members questioning their peers and those they may report to and also leads to a culture of blame.”

Brower reports that an early sign might be employees being unwilling to take risks and people going it alone.

“If people feel they make a mistake, they are nervous,” Brower says. “When there is trust, people do not fear the repercussions.”

Knute Nelson Photo
Patty Nelson and Melissa Kallberg (both kneeling)
enjoy a laugh with Sr. Antonette and Sr. Maureen at
Knute Nelson/Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. The
organization believes that trust among staff, once
lost, can be hard to regain, and takes steps to
maintain a high-trust culture.

Chatting by the water cooler, talking behind each other’s backs, and silence when requests are made for input, are signs of a low-trust environment, Wichner adds.

Gossip and rumors are warnings that something is wrong. Younger employees think no news is bad news, unlike earlier generations who thought no news is good news.

“It’s a lot like junior high school, where you see small groups of people sticking together,” adds Kay Collier McLaughlin, Ph.D., with Transformative Leadership Counseling in Lexington, KY. “The feeling that emerges does not feel good.”

Watch social media and monitor what employees say about the organization, Bersoff suggests.

Anxiety, divisiveness, and indirect communication are other signs of a low-trust environment, McLaughlin adds.

“People do not work well in environments with low trust,” McLaughlin reports. “It makes people question the safety of the environment, and who might turn on me.”

Principles Driving a High-Trust Workplace

Principles behind a high-trust workplace include, says Cook: “transparency; clear, consistent, and open communication; solicitation of feedback; valuing and validating people and their opinions; and investing in staff through education and training. If an organization has trust issues, this will probably feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable for everyone involved, but it also can show that there’s a willingness to address problems by doing things differently.”

Silletto agrees that transparency is a key principle for a trust relationship. Without it, people will make up their own negative assumptions. Silletto recommends allowing staff to have a say in decisions and to speak up.

A team mentality, a sense that we are in this together, is associated with trusting environments, Brower says.

Bersoff describes 3 elements associated with fulfilling a social contract that builds trust. The first is offering the employees a good job opportunity, making them feel financially secure with opportunities to advance and grow; making people feel empowered, with regular communication and participation in planning processes; and helping employees feel they can do good, making society a better place, through their employer. When employer and employee values match, it’s more successful.

First Steps to Improving Trust

“Own up to the problem,” Wichner advises. “Regaining trust is a harder process than maintaining it.”

Directly communicating trust, sharing information, and asking staff members’ opinions fosters trust, as does delegating assignments, Wichner says. He warns not to micromanage.

“Creating a high-trust environment involves doing hard things,” says Steve Dickie, CEO of Oklahoma Methodist Manor, a life plan community in Tulsa, that had to deal with male residents behaving inappropriately toward housekeepers. “As a leader, it is important for me to speak for people who do not have a voice.”

Oklahoma Methodist Manor established “Culture of Courtesy Guidelines” in 2010, which improved communication and increased trust in the community. These guidelines sanction resident and staff behavior like bullying.

“If we can teach people healthy behaviors, trust will follow,” says McLaughlin, who helped Oklahoma Methodist Manor with its culture change. “Behavioral change requires repetition, checking on, and refreshing.”

Maintaining a Trusting Workplace

Trust, typically, develops with time, but can be lost in a flash.

“If you do not keep up the communication, it will fade over time,” Wichner says.

Supervisory staff at Knute Nelson regularly round with frontline workers. They ask employees what management could do better or do to make the organization a better place to work. They also ask about the team charter and using the news intranet, named KN360.

“It creates a culture of trust, because you are getting to know each other and allows the leader to handle concerns,” Wichner says. “It definitely works.”

Supervisors track who they have rounded with, so the next leader knows to go somewhere else, and so everyone has been rounded with once per quarter.

UMRC human resources staff hold stay interviews, talking with employees about why they stay and any concerns they may have. Human resources then takes the issues to the department head, who develops a work plan.

Brower suggests trusting information with staff members, who will rise to the occasion. She also recommends letting employees train or mentor new hires and enabling staff members to attend conferences to learn new systems or processes. Investing in people helps develop their trust.

Another idea, from Silletto, is establishing a staff council, in which leaders would listen to problems and come up with ideas for improving the work environment and jobs.

“I have seen it work beautifully,” says Silletto, who encourages employers to measure trust through anonymous employee surveys.

Bersoff also recommends anonymous surveys conducted by a third party.

“High-trust environments are marked with a high sense of humor and lightness,” McLaughlin says. “You can sense an ability to collaborate. There’s energy.”

Debra Wood, R.N., is a writer who lives in Orlando, FL.