Forget Engagement - Maybe We Should Really be Focused on Employee Trust


Workplace trust is terribly important, and along with culture, probably one of the two biggest factors that drive your workplace -- even if you don't realize it.

Trust is under the spotlight right now because of a new survey, titled Trust in the Workplace, released by EY, which describes itself as "a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services ... that helps build trust and confidence in the capital markets and in economies the world over." You probably know them more by their old name -- Ernst & Young.

EY says that, "Our Global generations study is the third annual survey undertaken on generational issues in the workplace. For this study, our objective was to understand the factors influencing trust, and a lack of trust, in the workplace."

A huge lack of trust by workers in their employers

It's a great topic to dig into, and EY went for a pretty large sample -- nearly 10,000 adults aged 19 to 68 employed full-time across a variety of companies in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, the UK, and the United States. They also surveyed more than 3,200 younger adults— from the up-and-coming Generation Z, aged 16 to 18 — "to understand how these soon-to-be professionals’ perceptions of trust might influence their future employment decisions."

The results? Frankly, they're pretty depressing:

  • Less than half of global professionals say they trust their employer, boss, or team/colleagues. Less than half of global respondents have a “great deal of trust” in their current employers (46 percent), boss or team/colleagues (both 49 percent).
  • What causes a lack of trust? The top five (5) factors leading to respondents’ lack of trust in their employers were:
    1. Unfair employee compensation;
    2. Unequal opportunity for pay and promotion;
    3. A lack of leadership;
    4. High employee turnover; and,
    5. A work environment that is not conducive to collaboration.
  • Which factors promote trust? The leading aspects that were “very important” to a majority of global respondents in determining the level of trust to place in their employers were:
    1. “Delivers on promises” -- 67 percent;
    2. Provides job security”  -- 64 percent;
    3. Provides fair compensation and good benefits”  -- 63 percent;
    4. Communicates openly/transparently”  -- 59 percent.
  • There was a tie for fifth place between “provides equal opportunity for pay and promotion for all people regardless of differences” and “operates ethically”  -- both 57 percent.
  • Gen Z respondents say they value equal opportunity for pay and promotion, and opportunities to learn and advance are leading factors in trusting a future employer. The top factors Gen Z respondents globally said were “very important” in trusting an employer were “provides equal opportunity for pay and promotion” and “provides opportunities to learn and advance in my career” (both 66 percent).


"The currency of good businesses"

Why is employee trust so important? As EY's Karen Twaronite wrote in an analysis of the survey in the Harvard Business Review:

Trust is the currency of good businesses. Other research has found that positive teams that trust each other are more productive, creative, and resilient — which helps improve the organization’s overall effectiveness.

And according to the Quality of Life @ Work study, how much trust and safety employees experience correlates to how respected they feel by their leaders. Employees who felt that their leaders treated them with respect were 63 percent more satisfied with their jobs, 55 percent more engaged, 58 percent more focused, and 110 percent more likely to stay with their organization."

My take: This survey should be a wake-up call for business leaders everywhere that makes it clear that perhaps it would be smarter, and more useful, to focus on employee trust instead of employee engagement when it comes to larger business strategy.

Is it not possible that the reason for such terribly low engagement numbers -- Gallup says that a whopping 87 percent of employees worldwide are NOT engaged -- is because of a larger lack of employee trust?

If that's the case, well, it means that all the focus on engagement is just a lot of wasted effort.

If you care about things like employee engagement, trust, and workplace culture -- the things that seem to get a lot of lip service but not much follow through -- you should dig into the EY Trust in the Workplace survey and the analysis in HBR because you'll get a lot more insight from them into what you probably should be thinking about to truly help your employees be more involved, and engaged, in their jobs.

Maybe, just maybe, it will get you to turn your efforts to trust rather than wasting so much effort on engagement. I'm betting that if you do, you'll find that both trust AND engagement improve.