Trust is the foundation of any successful organization. When employees trust their leadership and each other, they can work together efficiently and pursue shared goals effectively. However, trust takes time and effort to build, yet can easily be damaged.
Today we will examine common pitfalls that undermine organizational trust and outlines proven strategies for developing and sustaining high levels of trust within a company.
Pitfall 1: Lack of Authentic, Consistent Leadership
One of the primary ways trust erodes is through inconsistent or inauthentic leadership. When managers say one thing but do another, make vague promises they don't follow through on, or prioritize their own interests over the well-being of employees, it severely damages trust. An example is a VP who campaigned on being transparent but frequently stays in their office with the blinds closed and rarely shares important strategic plans with staff. Trust also falters when leaders aren't truthful about challenges facing the organization or try to shift blame for failures rather than taking responsibility.
Proven Strategy: Lead with Integrity and Transparency
To build trust, leaders must lead with integrity through consistent actions, values, and communication. This means being upfront about both positive and negative issues, following through on commitments, admitting and learning from mistakes, and prioritizing employee and customer needs above all else. The CEO of a mid-sized tech company, for instance, holds monthly all-hands meetings where any staff member can ask questions and he provides frank yet optimistic updates on product launches, hiring goals, financials, and more. Such transparency fosters high trust levels throughout the organization.
Pitfall 2: Lack of Open Communication Channels
When leaders fail to provide adequate opportunities for two-way communication, rumors and distrust inevitably grow. If employees can only access limited or filtered information from their direct managers, they may feel unclear about broader goals and priorities or left in the dark about important decisions. They also lack venues to provide feedback or raise concerns confidentially. For example, at a marketing firm, the executive team stopped holding regular Q&A sessions with all employees after growth made town halls logistically difficult. This limited transparency and encouraged gossip.
Proven Strategy: Democratize Information Sharing
Organizations with strong trust proactively share information and ensure multiple channels exist for open dialogue across all levels. Town halls, surveys, anonymous comment forms, suggestion boxes, and open-door policies from top leaders allow transparency and input. One company implemented a internal social network where anyone can post questions to executives and interact with responses, fostering two-way dialogue that reduced uncertainty. Trust thrives when information flows laterally as well as top-down through diverse communication pathways.
Pitfall 3: Lack of Psychological Safety
Employees will not feel comfortable contributing ideas, feedback, or mistakes without a culture of psychological safety. When managers act overly critical, prone to public shaming, or intolerant of missteps, people fear potential retaliation for honest errors or alternative viewpoints. This stifles risk-taking, learning, and teamwork essential for innovation and growth. For example, at a consulting firm known for "crushing" underperformers, colleagues rarely helped each other due to competition and the perception that admitting skills gaps could threaten their status.
Proven Strategy: Foster a Just Culture
High-trust workplaces nurture a "just culture" where people view mistakes not as failures warranting punishment but opportunities for improvement. Leaders model this by appreciating attempts gone wrong and embracing difficulties as learning experiences to be shared, rather than issues to assign blame over. Weekly team check-ins focused on problem-solving versus performance ensure open discussions of challenges without fear of retribution. Employees feel empowered to experiment and collectively develop solutions, deepening connections and trust throughout the process.
Pitfall 4: Lack of Follow-Through on Initiatives
Lip service to caring about employee well-being, development opportunities, or work-life balance undermines trust when not matched by concrete actions and resources. Empty promises like team outings that never materialize suggest real priorities do not align with publicized values. For example, leadership at one education nonprofit touted mentorship programs yet approved minimal budgets, overloading mentors and frustrating protégés with lack of guidance. Unfulfilled commitments damage credibility that trust depends on.
Proven Strategy: Implement Initiatives with Integrity
Gaining employee buy-in to visions hinges on following through with commitments through integrity and consistency. Companies with high trust clarify expectations upfront, provide support according to communicated plans, invite feedback on implementation to address issues early, and visibly celebrate initiatives aligning actions and messaging. The director of a medical device startup, for instance, doubles the budget for employee wellness days after staff praise reduced stress but suggest expanding popular activities, honoring employee voices. Consistent fulfillment of initiatives earns the trust to try new ideas.
Pitfall 5: Inequitable Treatment or Opportunities
When policies, resource distribution, career advancement, or day-to-day treatment differ without clear rationale between roles, functions, genders or other identity groups within a company, perceptions of unfairness fester and distrust divides coworkers. A law firm, for example, developed a problematic boys' club reputation due to a pattern of promoting associates based more on after-hours socializing than merit or qualifications. In contrast, transparent performance frameworks and balanced conditions for all workers foster an atmosphere of fair treatment where individuals feel motivated rather than restricted.
Proven Strategy: Implement Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Best Practices
Leading companies make individual bias mitigation, diversity recruiting, equitable career development systems with clear criteria, equal pay analyses, anti-harassment trainings, and support groups for marginalized identities top priorities. For instance, a global consultancy implemented mandatory unconscious bias coaching for managers, standardized review cycles, and employee resource teams to address previous discrimination complaints and boost trust across backgrounds. Adherence to high DEI standards signals that each person's fullest contributions are truly valued, building unity.
In today's dynamic world, organizational trust acts as a competitive advantage enabling rapid innovation, resilience through challenge, and high productivity. Yet trust is fragile and its erosion can severely damage morale, retention and collaboration. By understanding common pitfalls like inconsistent leadership, poor communication, an unforgiving culture and unrealized promises, companies can avoid practices undermining the trust foundation. Equally important are demonstrating integrity through transparency, ensuring open dialogue, fostering psychological safety and learning from mistakes, following through consistently on commitments, and establishing equitable, inclusive treatment for all. With vigilance against corrosive behaviors and active implementation of research-backed strategies, any organization can maintain a high-trust work environment supporting exceptional staff and business outcomes.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.