Maintaining employees’ trust in leaders during lockdown – why it pays to be open in communication

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Mark Saunders, Professor of Business Research Methods
Margarita Nyfoudi, Lecturer in Human Resource Management & Organisational Behaviour

Building and maintaining employees’ trust in the midst of a crisis is essential to the sustainability of an organisation. Trust can not only enhance employees’ willingness to cooperate and collaborate with each other but also increase their performance efforts and going the extra mile for their employer. Employees who trust are more likely to believe what leaders tell them, be committed and work towards a common goal. In times of crisis, this goal may be the organisation’s survival with minimal job losses.

How can trust in leaders be built and maintained?

Trust can be built and maintained by leaders actively passing on important information to employees, giving the full story, rather than withholding, perhaps negative parts.

In sharing information, leaders need to demonstrate their:

  • professional competence or ability
  • concern for the wellbeing of others, in other words their benevolence
  • Integrity, e. that the leader is acting honestly and ethically.

In recent news reports, UK government scientific advisors expressed their fury about their advice on lockdown being censored before it was published, noting that the blanked out portions contained criticism of potential government policies. At least one scientific advisor argued that such a secretive approach undermines public trust.

Offering advice based upon sound scientific research (in other words, advice that is competent), which shows real concern for wellbeing of others (in other words, benevolent) may not, on its own be sufficient to engender trust. Where all or part of the information on which the advice is based is withheld, recipients may question the reasons for such an action, therefore undermining trust in leadership.

What does this mean for organisations?

As lockdown rules are being constantly revised, organisations need to communicate fully how the changes impact their employees and how they will be expected to work. In doing so, it is crucial that employers retain employees’ trust by sharing clear and honest information with competence, benevolence and integrity.

In particular, when sharing information about expectations, employers need to demonstrate their:

competence by:

  • explaining fully the reasoning on which expectations are based
  • avoiding misinformation
  • maintaining consistency in messages or otherwise, justifying the change of approach

benevolence by:

  • ensuring concern for employees’ wellbeing is evident in the expected ways of working
  • adopting an approach that maximizes the benefits for all
  • empathizing with staff members facing difficulties and acknowledging all those going the extra mile

integrity by:

  • avoiding hiding information
  • demonstrating a willingness to listen to, discuss and address employees’ critiques and concerns
  • staying true to and highlighting the values of the organisation

Sharing information openly and actively will result in questions and may also invite criticisms and even complaints. In listening and responding actively to their employees’ questions, leaders will need to recognise the potential legitimacy of these alternative views and be prepared to give clear reasons for, or even amend, their own expectations. However, leaders who have the courage to have such conversations are able to develop stronger trusting bonds with the employees and lead their organisation through crises.

In summary, adopting a reticent and reserved approach to communicating with employees is likely to undermine employees’ trust, especially in times of turbulence and unprecedented uncertainty. In contrast, communicating openly and competently with benevolence and integrity can help build and maintain employees’ trust in their leaders, and improve engagement and chances of organizational survival and prosperity.

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