Training To Build Trust

An employer can be a force to fear, or a force for trust and cooperation. More companies are discovering ways—including specific training—to build trust with their employees, fostering greater productivity and higher employee retention in the process.

Being an employer means occasionally being the bad guy. You sometimes have to lay off hundreds of employees, and your managers sometimes have to let employees know they will not receive their requested promotion. At the same time, you and your managers have the opportunity to build bonds of trust with your workforce. Employees can learn from experience that their employer can be trusted to be respectful of their needs and honest with them—whether the news is good or bad. Indeed, more companies these days are discovering ways—including specific training—to build trust with their employees. The rewards of building a relationship of trust with your employees is a workforce willing to do more for you, and to stick with you through the years.

Establish Core Values

The first step to creating a trusting relationship with employees is to agree on a belief system to use as a guide. “From the start, employers must engage with employees and earn mutual trust through experience and agreement on core values,” says Jody Stolt, director of the Learning & Development Center at Training Top 125er Paychex, and Laurie O’Mara, a Paychex Human Resources project manager. “Employees who trust in the company they work for and are engaged will stay longer, strive to do better, and say great things about their company. Peer trust is also key to successful outcomes for employees, which leads to meeting business results.”

Each month, Paychex conducts a leader-led training that ties together the company’s core values and culture concepts. The topic of trust is not specifically named, but the modules of the program are connected to trust. One module, “Respect and Assuming Positive Intent— You Are Unique,” encourages co-workers to recognize and appreciate the characteristics they have in common, as well as the qualities that make them unique and refreshingly different. “Integrity and Shadow of Influence—Choose Your Path” focuses on the choices employees make, and how they impact and influence others.

In addition to talking about the core values in a structured curriculum, trust is established in the community involvement and support for one another that the company encourages employees to provide. “Caring for others is simply part of what we do at Paychex,” say Stolt and O’Mara. “It’s employees taking care of each other and their communities. It’s what gets kicked into high gear when there’s a charity walk in an employee’s city, or serving a meal at a shelter during the holidays. It’s the support employees give to the annual companywide United Way campaign. It’s the rallying cry that mobilizes a team to action when a co-worker suffers a personal tragedy or health crisis. And it’s the money the Paychex Charitable Foundation commits to help nonprofit organizations in Rochester and across the country.”

The caring culture at the company, which Stolt and O’Mara say is closely tied to its trusting bond with employees, is up front. The hashtag, #PaychexCares, is placed by the company on T-shirts, in social postings, on signs, and on internal communications, they explain, noting, “when you have a heart as big as our collective Paychex heart, it’s nice to share.”

Train for Trust

Laying the groundwork for trust both in a structured curriculum and by good works, as Paychex does, can be a recipe for success. Building and solidifying trust, some experts say, are skills that can be taught. “I argue that trust is a competency. As with any competency, training plays a huge role in moving from familiarity to proficiency, and eventually to mastery,” says Stephen M.R. Covey, co-founder and global practice leader of FranklinCovey. “The fact that it’s something people are generally familiar with may actually be its greatest strength. When we train leaders and organizations to help them develop a high-trust culture, that familiarity allows them to grow and improve with great speed. Additionally, apart from trust being something we’re all familiar with, it’s also something we all want. This means that the buy-in and practical adoption, which is vital for any successful training, tends to be high right from the start. Finally, when we give people a common framework, language, and process for developing trust, it accelerates both the adoption and proficiency.”

At Training Top 125er Norton Healthcare, building trust is an important component of the training curriculum, says Barry Gary, director of Learning & Development. “We take a direct approach by offering curriculum content that focuses specifically on building and maintaining an environment of trust,” he says. “Additionally, a few consistent threads run throughout all of our programs and courses that serve to enhance communication and transparency by conveying key messages around mission, vision, and values, and by giving context to content by relating it to key organizational imperatives. As a result, all learners have an opportunity to better understand our organization and gain clarification as it relates to their particular roles. Helping employees feel ‘in the loop,’ so to speak, is an effective way to enhance trust.”

One of the most important aspects of the trust-related curriculum at Norton Healthcare is training employees to communicate openly. With open communication comes less suspicion and mistrust, says Gary. “Our leadership development curriculum is based on ‘The Norton Leadership Way,’ which is a written articulation of our desired leadership culture. Embedded in this philosophy are imperatives such as ‘Model Our Values,’ ‘Care for Others,’ and ‘Strive to Be an Exceptional Communicator’— all essential qualities of leaders who are effective at building trust within their teams. For all employees, our organizational values start with the mandate to ‘Respect every person,’ which is absolutely necessary to build trust.”

Sometimes, trust can be solidified by showing you are creating training with the learner’s needs front and center. That’s what Training Top 125er NIGP: The Institute for Public Procurement has done. “If you look at how we shifted focus to developing more learner-centered content in the digital space (content that is easier to access and available 24/7), you can see this emphasis upon learner-focused initiatives,” says Director of Content Research & Development Laura Shelters, M.Ed. “This commitment and ability to evolve—to continue to meet our members’ needs—absolutely builds trust, and our team ensures that we’re reflecting the needs of our membership by building post-experience evaluation forms in all learning experiences, allowing us to revise and build content at a rate that continuously supports the needs of the procurement professional.”

At Training Top 125er MTM, a structured approach to building trust includes one-on-one career development, says Chief Human Resources Officer Kerri Mileski. “Building and maintaining trust needs to be a conscious effort that is reinforced and cared for by our leadership as part of their daily responsibilities,” she says. “We focus on training our leaders to establish and curate trust as a management expectation. Providing direct and timely feedback; meeting with employees one-on-one to discuss key performance indicators, goals, performance, career and development desires; communicating regularly to their teams; and recognizing individual and team achievements are all practices our leaders are expected to engage in.”

Setting expectations is a skill all of MTM’s leaders are trained to be adept at, and one the company believes ties directly to establishing trust. “The organization needs to set expectations and provide a structure for these activities to occur successfully. We then have to give our leaders the toolkit and resources to execute in this area, just like we would do with any other project or job responsibility,” Mileski says.

Be Transparent

A great destroyer of trust is when your employees find out you have been keeping something—or many things—from them. Worse yet is when what’s been kept from employees are things that could adversely affect them.

At Training Top 125er FORUM Credit Union, the Training department is conscious of its role as a communication bridge between executive decision-makers and employees, and understands that the more openly executive decisions can be communicated, the more trust employees will have in their company. “As a Training department, we ‘control the airways,’ so to speak—using tools such as our intranet platform, the GRiD, we have transformed the way all employees communicate. There is a top-down, real-time communication system in place that enhances our culture of transparency,” note Strategic Talent Development Leader Michelle Baker and Vice President of Organizational Development MeChelle Callen. “From an employee’s first hour on the job, he or she is engaged in conversation with our CEO, and the majority of his or her first day is spent meeting and learning from our entire executive team. Creating this foundation is a priority for our executive leaders.”

FORUM’s board of directors likewise operates with a spirit of transparency. There is never a sense of a secret body working in a back chamber to develop secret plans. “Employees know who serves on our board and have access to meeting agendas and board information,” Baker and Callen explain. “After our annual business plan is developed, our CEO does a ‘road show’ with every department to share our goals for the year, and provides updates every month regarding our progress and how we are delivering against our goals to effectively serve our members.”

Try Teambuilding Exercises

The trust you teach in structured curricula and reinforce with transparent communication can be practiced in teambuilding exercises. Bill Treasurer, leadership development consultant and author of five leadership books, who often writes about trust, uses such exercises in his work with organizations.

“One of the best ways to illustrate the importance of trust is to have people experience the consequences of distrust,” says Treasurer. To do that, he uses an exercise called Helium Stick in which employees have to work together to place a dowel rod, balanced on their pointing fingers, on the ground. “What is interesting is how the group starts to react when the dowel rod starts moving in exactly the opposite direction than the group expects. Even though the goal is to put it down on the ground, it nearly always starts floating up. At that point, participants start laughing but also blaming each other for the dowel rod’s upward movement,” says Treasurer. “The more the rod goes up, the more individuals start blaming each other, and the further away from their goal they get. In the debrief, this becomes the main takeaway: Sometimes when our work realities become out of alignment with our individual work expectations, we start pointing fingers and looking for external excuses, and as we do, performance goes down and goals suffer.”

A 360-degree evaluation is not exactly a teambuilding activity, but it can reveal managers’ tendencies that may be eroding trust with their teams. Covey says, for instance, that a CEO, who evaluated herself as a manager who inspired great loyalty and trust was surprised by how her colleagues perceived her. “The team agreed she was loyal in some ways, but the behavior they were all thinking about had to do with how she responds when a person leaves the organization. They told her she always downplays their capabilities and denigrates their achievements. She realized and acknowledged she does do that, but with the intent to make the rest of the team feel like they were going to be OK, that they hadn’t lost too much talent,” says Covey. “This CEO’s behavior, while well-intentioned, was placing a huge tax on the employee experience. She committed to acknowledge the contributions of others, and that it was a hard loss, but that she would express great confidence in the team that they still would be able to overcome it going forward. The reality is she felt that way anyway, but her behavior was causing others to lose trust, and without that feedback, she would have kept doing the same thing.”


  • ESTABLISH CORE VALUES. In a mission statement, or otherwise, let employees know the values your organization finds most important, and then demonstrate how those values play out via actions the company takes and in communication with employees.
  • TRAIN FOR TRUST. Develop training programs that offer structured curricula on creating trusting relationships with colleagues. Make trust part of every leadership development and new manager training program.
  • BE TRANSPARENT. Be direct and open with employees in discussing changes to the organization, especially those that may impact them or their work. Debrief all employees about board and executive meetings, so employees never feel blindsided by announcements of upcoming change.
  • TRY TEAMBUILDING EXERCISES. Research teambuilding exercises online or through a book, or have an expert facilitator on the subject visit to conduct a workshop. Exercises that enable employees and managers to observe work patterns can show where trust needs to be built.
  • ASK FOR BROAD FEEDBACK. Performance reviews that require 360-degree feedback can reveal holes in trust between colleagues or between employees and executives. The team then can work together to patch those holes.
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.