After the implosion: 9 ways to rebuild employee trust after a crisis

Business people brainstorming and chatting at workplace office

Rebuilding workforce trust is challenging but achievable through proactive leadership and genuine engagement: learn how with these tips from David Ross 

These feel like increasingly tense times. Terms like ‘permacrisis’ have gained greater visibility as the world faces conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, global existential challenges including climate change and AI, and a litany of other significant, interconnected economic, social and environmental problems whose lack of resolution has not inspired great confidence.   

Trust is critical. Trust is such an importance currency necessary if teams are to be truly engaged 

As trust in our political leaders has accordingly waned, so too it must feel to some public and private-sector executives like they are being held responsible for conflicts that, at times, aren’t even of their making. Challenges like Covid-19 did not come with a manual. There was no clear pathway laid out. And as western society appears to be becoming more partisan, finding commonality is hard.  

Nevertheless, I don’t want to let organisations off the hook; it is disconcerting just how many high-profile crises have taken place in recent years that were very much the making of individual organisations or industries.   

Have we reached peak trust? 

Think of some of the recent examples of crises. There is outrage throughout the breadth of UK’s water utility organisations. There is the Post Office crisis. The Cambridge Analytica, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Bank crises. At present, Boeing is alleged to have put profit over the safety of millions of travellers.  

Often crises are instigated by an organisation imposing goals or activities upon a group, community or region that go against what the affected want. Not only has something been imposed but, to the affected, it often feels illegitimate as poor decisions have been made solely in the name of profits. Greenwash-led crises, where organisations intentionally mislead communities to portray an environmentally conscious image, are also an example of this.  

My experience, unsurprisingly, is that employees don’t feel proud working for such organisations. They may even be the affected. I’ve listened to many who speak in grim and tired tones. They often seek meaning from their work but when they find themselves in such uncomfortable and, indeed, heated situations, they don’t feel supported from above. Instead, they witness management teams seemingly seeking to resolve whatever the crisis might be by doubling down with further imposition and/or through implementing a one-way PR spin campaign, believing that everyone will move on – without question – in due course. 

I would lump those organisations imposing end of working-from-home arrangements in the same category. It is unlikely that employees will become more engaged by organisations seeking to control like this. Instead, employees – particularly those of high calibre – will take such signals as the catalyst to realise they’ve lost trust in management and it’s time to finally look elsewhere for a new job.  

Trust is critical. Trust is such an importance currency necessary if teams are to be truly engaged. Otherwise, it is extremely difficult for management to expect that high-quality work will be delivered in the most efficient time by employees. Once that trust is lost, it takes a lot to get it back. 

And even without the risk of a crisis, something of significant concern is currently taking place across the UK. Gallup’s recent State of the Global Workforce Report found that 90% of the UK workforce are currently disengaged from their work, reflecting the ‘quiet quitting’ trend we have been witnessing in recent years. That is a lot of people exhibiting absenteeism or presenteeism (turning up but not being productive, whatsoever).  

Make no mistake, employees are no longer so compliant. It is time for employers to confront the change in power dynamics. 

Rebuilding employee trust  

Rebuilding trust with your workforce is hard but it is possible, provided that your organisation is genuinely committed to turning the corner. Here are nine of the most important tactics you should call on to shift from ground zero to potential hero: 

  1. The most important people to lead: The rebuild needs to be publicly led by someone with authority and emotional intelligence. If the current lead doesn’t have empathy, the ability to truly listen, or just gets plain defensive, get them out of harm’s way. 
  1. The most important people to involve: The influential people with different perspectives to you and your team, those who have been affected by the crisis, should play a critical advisory role at the very least with respect to finding solutions.  
  1. The most important corporate mindset: There is penance for you to take ownership of. You cannot avoid it. This is not a time to listen to old-school PR types explain how you can ride this one out. Conflict may go underground for a while, but it doesn’t disappear. 
  1. The most important strategy to deliver: Centre your strategy on the realisation that the only way that “we” will successfully get out of this is to truly involve, even collaborate, with people that think differently to “us”. That means sharing control. Take time to absorb that last sentence.  
  1. The most important thing that you can say: “I’m sorry”.  Acknowledge the poor decisions, the poor behaviour, and an appreciation of how this has impacted people. And mean it. 
  1. The most important follow-up thing that you can say: “We are taking your concerns seriously. And this is what we are going to do… and this is what you can expect.” 
  1. The most important things that you can do in the early days of the rebuild: Don’t hide; listen deeply to the affected. Seek to understand and always be responsive to concerns.  
  1. The most important follow-up steps to embed success: Hold yourselves accountable. Actively communicate rather than create a communication vacuum. Importantly, give humble, public thanks to the affected for improving the situation 
  1. The most important long-term consideration: The crisis did not occur because of “them”; it occurred because your organisation’s culture and dominating leadership style have not adapted to changing times. Hence, once you get out of the frying pan, don’t aim to head back to the fire. Seek a long-term transformation that, again, truly involves those who have been aggrieved.  

David Ross is founder of Phoenix Strategic Management and author of Confronting the Storm: Regenerating Leadership and Hope in the Age of Uncertainty 

David Ross

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