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How to cultivate trust

Posted on from CIPD

To generate trust, in ourselves and our organisations, it is vital to reflect on competence, benevolence, integrity and predictability, argues CIPD director of strategy and transformation Laura Harrison.

This year’s glut of elections in Europe (including our own) is playing out as games of ‘trust chicken’: who can out-bluff whom and appear a trustworthy leader.

Meanwhile, in business, CEOs are taking pay cuts in the name of trust and responsibility, while media platforms are fighting to maintain the integrity of their brands amid accusations of “fake news”.

How, then, can we demonstrate our own trustworthiness, and build it in others? These questions were core to our study, Cultivating Trustworthy Leaders, produced in collaboration with Professor Veronica Hope Hailey and her team at the University of Bath, and we reached the following practical conclusions:


We trust competence. 

Business leaders may need reminding that their competence is not always obvious to those removed from them in the organisation. Encouraging them to show the rationale behind their decisions, or, better still, to give the workforce a voice in those decisions, will help build their ‘trust funds’.

HR professionals can demonstrate personal competence in obvious ways, such as delivering to deadline. But we’re often battling perception. While we frequently hear that “HR is common sense”, it actually requires expertise in people, work and change; ego maturity to hold complex, ambiguous and competing positions; and professionalism, a willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the greater good. Exemplify these, and you’re on your way to being trusted.


We trust benevolence, compassion for others and motivations beyond self-interest. In HR, we can help our leaders be their best selves at work. A macho tendency to leave a ‘private’ self outside the office is damaging, so we need to find safe ways for leaders to lead without compromising themselves, their values or their performance.

Remember the ‘human’ in human resources. Take your power and influence over peoples’ experience of work seriously. Championing ‘people issues’ or good causes reinforces the human side of HR.


Maintaining objectivity, transparency and clear accountability when applying policies builds trust and demonstrates authenticity.

For example, during pay reviews, it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of distributing a pot of 2.1% of salaries and to lose sight of the fact that opaque decisions arouse suspicion. Communicating the governance around pay reviews is as important as the financial outcomes for individual employees.

So take the trust test: whenever you make a decision, or coach someone else to do so, reflect on competence, benevolence, integrity and predictability. And ask, in these circumstances, would I trust me?

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