Three Ingredients for Fostering a Culture of Trust

Trust is a profound act that occurs on a human scale. By focusing on the concepts of character, connection and conviction, HR leaders can contribute to increased levels of trust in an organization.

Friday, September 29, 2017
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While HR leaders aren't the only cooks in the kitchen when it comes to organizational culture, they are frequently asked to support the creation of a strong, positive culture. Often, this request comes from the C-Suite, with the objective to focus on building trust.

Yet, despite a common understanding of the many benefits of trust, the challenges of establishing a trust-based organization have never been greater. We conducted research in thousands of companies across a wide swath of industries and found that almost three quarters of organizations around the world have low-trust cultures.

Before discussing how to foster trust, let's take a step back to define what trust is -- and what it is not. Often, when people talk about trust, what they intend is closer to "confidence." For example, if you order a pair of shoes online, you probably trust that they will be the right size and color, based on your order. But that trust is simply the expectation that a company or person will do what you requested. While earning another's confidence through a proven track record is an important aspect of a high-performance culture, it differs from building an organizational culture on trust.

Trust is a profound act that occurs on a human scale. Real interpersonal trust lies in the act of making oneself vulnerable by putting your welfare in the hands of another, by trusting that person to deliver on something important to you. It is this openness to vulnerability that makes the act of trusting one another so deeply challenging.

So, what can an HR leader do to build a culture that fosters trust? There are no shortcuts to changing culture, but we've found that focusing on three dimensions can contribute to increased levels of trust in an organization. They are character, or how we behave; connection, or how we relate to each other; and conviction, or how we pursue personal and shared goals.


As we move from an industrial or knowledge economy to one that is more networked, more digital and more sensitive to the greater good of all, winning organizational cultures will be ones that prioritize what's strongest and most profound about human character. This includes courage, empathy, joy, creativity, our quest for justice, our ability to care, and the many other virtues that speak to the best parts of being human.

How can leaders encourage their colleagues to bring the best of themselves to work? One easy way is to celebrate them when they do so, pointing out what's right with colleagues' behavior. People naturally yearn to demonstrate the best aspects of themselves with others when they feel supported in doing so. When this happens, when people behave with strength and virtue at work, they are elevated and energized in how they engage.

As easy as this sounds, our research shows that only 12 percent of organizations show high degrees of celebrating one another.

Celebrating what's right can be as simple as a "shout out" in a weekly team meeting. Many organizations do some form of this, but it can be made even more powerful by focusing on character strengths in what you're calling out, and being specific in how that colleague's courage, care, or compassion enabled a truly unique contribution. When leaders highlight character strength contributions, they foster connections and trust, along with the personal confidence that fuels it. When people bring the best of who they are to work, they experience a sense of authenticity and they do the right thing with confidence, even when the immediate benefit is unclear.

The role of HR leaders in this pursuit is critical. Consider the data. When managers emphasize creating a culture that gives people the freedom to bring their best qualities to our work, LRN research finds 96 percent of employees score them as effective leaders, compared to only 52 percent when leaders do not. These leaders are also more than three times as likely to deliver high business performance, scoring 85 percent for high performance versus only 25 percent for their peers. Leaders are more effective and performance is higher when character is a focal point in the culture.


Humans are wired to connect with each other, and we yearn to belong. Even when people have deep and rich connections outside of the workplace, feeling a sense of community within it is often what makes the difference for creating a workplace grounded on trust.

Prioritizing connection at work means spending time during working hours to foster relationships. One way HR heads can do this is by celebrating particular ways colleagues support one another; for example, instead of only acknowledging the efforts of a sales lead, leaders can formally recognize the ways in which other colleagues enabled that person's – and the team's – success. This may seem a subtle change, but by contributing to a colleague's success, an employee extends a hope that his or her efforts will be valued, making themselves vulnerable – the very definition of trust.

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Another way to foster connections is to commit to the growth and development of one another at work – for example, by providing formal or informal mentorship on projects, or inviting colleagues to shadow work or join in where the desire to learn is strong. It's one thing to collaborate on a project. It's quite another to feel that teammates and leaders are pulling for you, that they are looking out for what's in your best interest and that your wellbeing matters.


A high-trust culture takes more than strong personal character and interpersonal relationships within a company. People also need to feel that their contributions are significant and connected to the overall mission and purpose of the organization. When people have conviction in a mission that they work toward, their sights are on something greater than themselves. At the end of each day, month or year, they can reflect on the ways in which they have made a difference.

There is a difference between organizations that position themselves as having missions of significance as part of their PR strategy and those that have truly taken the time to align their business models and operations to a meaningful mission. In the latter, HR can help operational leaders better understand how to connect the dots between the daily work of teams and the organization's higher purpose, creating opportunities for everyone to find meaning in what they do. When leaders offer individuals freedom to pursue their own passions and missions within the framework of corporate goals, they are facilitating conviction.

Our research has found that when an organization has employees behaving with conviction, their performance is 27 percent greater than that of employees who are simply “engaged” with their work – that is, when they are authentically dedicated, deeply accountable and fully responsible -- yet only 8 percent of organizations successfully build conviction around a mission of significance.

To build cultures of trust, executives need to focus on the character, connection and conviction they see within their organizations and their people. Without them, trust is impossible.

Michael Eichenwald leads the advisory practice at ethics and compliance firm LRN and advises companies on leadership and how to build ethical cultures. As a senior advisor at LRN, Jan Stanley works closely with leaders to translate purpose and values into impactful action. Send questions or comments about this story to


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