Organizational Trust Is Down. Here’s How to Change That.


Having people trust leadership is a goal of every organization. It is something people devote lots of work and resources to. So, with all of the effort being put into building trust in an organization, why are the results less than what most leaders want?

Trust, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.” My experience is that it helps to ask those individuals we want to build trust with what trust looks like to them. The more specific we can encourage them to be, the greater the opportunity to build trust.

Trust is the foundation of all relationships, and it’s more important now than ever. Why? Organizations need to move forward quickly and be able to pivot in their actions and direction. My experience is that the pace of movement and ability to pivot correlate with the degree of trust present.

Dr. Katherine A. Meese and I have a book coming out in March 2024 called The Human Margin: Building the Foundations of Trust. It will share research on what today’s healthcare workforce really wants, as well as tools to address the research findings. A key finding is that trust in organizations has declined considerably over the past several years. This is not surprising, considering the pandemic derailed much of what senior leaders do in the trust area. For example, physical visibility decreased due to COVID-19. People were encouraged not to be with others unless necessary. The information on COVID-19 could be confusing. People wondered, Whom do I trust? The supply chain shortages created concern. People worried, Will I have adequate protection? It seemed there was a constant need to pivot on information and directions.

During COVID-19, there were more departures than normal. Some of the most experienced leaders decided it was a good time to retire. Other people quit for a variety of reasons, from helping parents to caring for their children. After these departures, people were put into new roles. The findings of Healthcare Plus Solutions Group are that at least 20 percent, and often up to 40 percent, of people in leadership roles have less than three years’ experience in that role.

Being a new supervisor is tough even in the best of times; now consider that much of the development a new manager typically receives had to be canceled due to COVID-19. Senior leaders did the best they could. For example, they made use of video meetings and remote development sessions. The issue was not a lack of effort. However, employee engagement results show that even the yeoman’s work done by senior leaders was not enough to stop the feeling of decreased organizational trust.

The lack of trust means that when someone in senior leadership sends a message, it may not be believed or acted on. I typically ask a CEO to provide the staff with the open rate on messages that come from them. Much of the time, the open rate is much lower than expected, even with middle managers.

In the Human Capital EcosystemTM assessment, we ask those in a supervisory role to rate on a 1-10 scale (with 10 being the highest) the support they feel they receive from top management. The average is in the 6 range. Again, this is expected, due to the impact of the pandemic. For example, we know there is catch-up to do in development. However, if we are not careful, catch-up can make things worse, not better. Why? Many people in leadership roles are tired and overwhelmed. While development intentions are good, the results may not be. A big part of building trust is providing development in a way that works for the individual.

Here are some tips to start the conversation on building trust.

  1. Share information. It goes a long way toward creating a sense of trust. My wife owns a café. She has brought in a consulting group to assess the operations and provide recommendations. To kick off the engagement, an all-staff session was held to introduce the consultants and explain the “why” behind it. A promise was made that after the assessment, the results and next steps would be shared with everyone. It happened. An all-staff meeting was held. James, one of the consultants, shared all the findings and the next steps. He explained that what they were seeing and hearing was exactly what my wife had seen. There were no secrets. As a discussion took place, the energy and suggestions from the group were high. Share information. It’s better to overcommunicate than to undercommunicate.
  2. Invest in development.Research shows that 92 percent of those in leadership want skill development. A much lower percentage feel they are receiving it. Take time to meet with each person in a leadership role and create a skill development plan based on their needs. We call this Precision Leader DevelopmentTM (PLD). It is best to focus on one skill at a time.
  3. Don’t assume those in a leadership role have the skill to position the company in a positive light.While they may position the product well, they may not always position senior leadership well. This is not on purpose; it is due to the lack of time to learn the right way to communicate with the team. I find there is lots of good in senior leaders and organizations. At my workshops, one of the table activities is to discuss some positive characteristics of the senior leadership team. It is very neat to hear the comments. I then ask the group how often and how they share those positive attributes of the senior team with those they lead. It creates the opportunity for healthy discussions and actions.

Trust is hard to build and easy to destroy. What takes years to build can vanish quickly. The key is to make deposits each day in people’s emotional bank accounts in a way that generates trust. You will be reading more on this topic before and after the book The Human Margin is available. As always, thank you for reading and for all you do to create the trust-based organizations that make healthcare better.

Quint Studer
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Quint Studer’s Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive is filled with tips, tactics, and need-to-know insights. His book The Calling: Why Healthcare Is So Special is aimed at helping healthcare professionals keep their sense of passion and purpose high. In Sundays with Quint, he shares a selection of his popular leadership columns for leaders, employees, and business owners in all industries. His latest book, Rewiring Excellence: Hardwired to Rewired, provides tools and techniques that are doable and that help employees and physicians experience joy in their work as well as enhance patients’ and families’ healthcare experiences.

Quint is the cofounder of Healthcare Plus Solutions Group, a consulting firm that specializes in delivering customized solutions to diagnose and treat healthcare organizations’ most urgent pain points.