Why L&D must ensure your organisation is trustworthy

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay look at the importance of nurturing organisational trust and what action organisations, and in particular HR and L&D professionals, should take.

Recently, all too many organisations have discovered the catastrophic damage suffered as a result of breaking trust amongst customers, employees and other stakeholders.

Many of these had previously unblemished reputations: Facebook over its data handling, Volkswagen with its emissions scandal, Oxfam with allegations of rogue behaviours amongst certain individuals, religious organisations over allegations of shocking abuse in the past, and numerous alleged sexual harassment scandals in the entertainment industry. 

Common sources which can undermine the reputations of organisations and trust in them often come back to management leadership. Top management can often isolate themselves from the real world and many polls conducted within organisations confirm a frequent gap between the workforce, customers and top management.

L&D professionals can help an organisation build and maintain trust by first focusing on its leaders, their values and behaviours.

Action to sustain a healthy culture needs to be widespread with regular, ongoing and decisive actions.

What can go wrong? There are numerous examples where a few individuals have tainted the whole organisation. As well as behaviours, this might involve faulty products and services, poor product design and inadequate customer service. In just a short time, actions can erode or destroy an organisation’s reputation.

L&D professionals can help an organisation build and maintain trust by first focusing on its leaders, their values and behaviours.

Leadership behaviours

We have observed that trustworthy leadership radiates out across the organisation. It is made up of certain areas:

  • Role modelling trusting behaviours. Trust starts at the local level, day in, day out demonstrating leadership by example that evokes trust. Leaders must not hide secrets if they are to evoke trust
  • Showing trust in others. To encourage trusting behaviour amongst team colleagues, experience suggests the manager and leader must be the starting point.
  • Communicating regularly. Good leaders build up confidence and generate mutual respect through regular communication inside and outside the organisation.
  • Dealing with issues. Where problems arise, these need to be nipped in the bud, not allowed to fester.
  • Values and culture building. Many organisations know the worth of discussing and debating the organisation’s culture, raising awareness of each individual’s role in sustaining a healthy culture and nurturing trust. 

​Importantly, setting up regular actions to remedy weaknesses and fostering strengths is a must. The hardest to tackle are rooting out the unspoken negative behaviours and practices, wherever they are in the organisation.

One organisation I worked with had been rocked by misconduct by its founder. L&D worked to set up as series of management workshops to surface the strong feelings generated and map a way forward. Tailored case studies provoked intense debate.


After managers then cascaded the principles down to department level, key actions and ideas were communicated to top management. Some key people left the organisation and investors remained wary for a considerable time afterwards.

Long term, the culture of the organisation has moved, wounds healed through coaching and development and progress has been supported by employee surveys.

Robust safe-guarding and whistle-blowing procedures

Best practice organisations put in place sound ‘living’ policies and procedures for safe-guarding and whistle-blowing.

A starting point for L&D: Don’t wait

Trust is a key component of our lives and is an essential building block for a healthy organisation. Recent events have shown that no organisation should wait until they are forced belatedly to repair the damage of a crisis of confidence in the organisation. Once broken, trust is hard to gain back.

As a starting point, L&D should initiate a discussion amongst key opinion formers to openly assess the areas that need attention and any strengths that can be amplified.

  • To what extent are we able to articulate our organisation’s cultural values? Do they match current practice in the real world?
  • To what extent is the organisation open and transparent?
  • To what extent does data and information stay secure?


About the authors

Sarah Cook is managing director of the strategic leadership and change management specialists, The Stairway Consultancy. Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield School of Management’s Centre for Customised Executive Development. Steve can be contacted by email on s.macaulay@cranfield.ac.uk. Sarah can be contacted by email on sarah@thestairway.co.uk


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