Workers worldwide now trust their employer more than any other institution, according to Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer. But other research suggests that that trust is nevertheless weak when it comes to organizations’ senior leaders.

Only around a third of 15,500 human-resources professionals and organizational leaders said they trusted their employer’s senior leadership, in a recent survey from leadership-consulting firm DDI. Less than half trusted their direct manager. As layoffs and hiring freezes continue apace, that trust is now especially fragile.

To understand how organizations can strengthen employee trust, we reached out to Stephanie Neal, the director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research. Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Can you summarize the report’s findings?

Our global leadership forecast, first to give you a little bit of background, is a study that DDI has been doing for over 20 years. It's really focused on getting at the best practices for how to develop leaders, what companies need to do to build a stronger leadership culture. And this year, our 2023 Global Leadership forecast, we saw quite a few signals that were concerning. I think we know it's been a really challenging time for leaders over the past few years, but what's really standing out is that leaders are feeling that challenge—the overall uncertainty of where they're going to lead into the future is really weighing on them.

We’re seeing a number of signals that they feel less confident in the quality of their leadership. That was the biggest drop that we had seen over our measures that we've been looking at for all these 20 years, is that only 40% of leaders say that their company has high-quality leaders. And while we've never seen a majority of leaders say that their company has high quality, because a lot of companies are still figuring this out and working at it, that big of a drop really reflects how leaders are feeling. Their confidence is not there, in terms of seeing that their company's going to meet these future challenges. A lot of that probably has to do with a lot of data disruption, a lot of other things that are going on. AI disruption is definitely starting to weigh on people. There's a lack of trust that their leaders are going to do the right thing.

We also saw a lot of leaders aren't feeling a strong sense of purpose in their role. And I think that's really reflective of the fact that they're not having the right conversations. They're not getting the right development to be thinking about what it is that matters about being a leader, being human at work. So it's really getting to the heart of, leaders need better people skills, they need better human skills to help lead through this time and help build the strong relationships and trust that they need to with their people.

The lack of confidence that respondents have in the quality of their organization's leadership—is that self-reflection on their own abilities, or is it saying, ‘I don't think the people that I work with are quality leaders’?

Explicitly, the question that we ask leaders is to rate the overall quality of leaders at their organization. So they're actually talking about all their peers, their senior leaders, everybody. There's an overall rating. We also dive into more specific levels. So your senior leaders: Are you feeling confident? Do you feel that they're high quality? But the one that I quoted, that 40%, is specific to them saying their overall organization's leadership is high quality.

Your survey specifically asked about trust in leaders to ‘do the right thing.’ At what altitude is that? Is it doing the right thing for the team or the organization? Or is there a component of employees demanding that their employers take stances on societal issues?

For that trust item, to some extent it's always in the eye of the beholder of who's responding, but we put it within a section that's really specific to their leadership and work experiences. The way that you saw it phrased is exactly how it was phrased in the survey. People are bringing in different notions of what that is, but essentially it's that they trust their manager will do the right thing in the context of work. But we do see trends, of course, in people bringing their values to work and expecting their leaders to do more of those things, too.

Do you differentiate at all between organizational and interpersonal trust? How likely is there to be a scenario where an employee has one without the other—‘I trust my manager, I don't trust my employer,’ or vice versa?

We didn't ask specifically about those two different constructs or really get into those two different contexts. What we did ask was the main question that we just talked about, which is, do they trust their manager to do what's right? Do they trust their senior leaders to do what is right? And then we did also ask of their immediate managers, if they saw them using behaviors that allow them to maintain trust and confidentiality. So that got a little bit more to the specific, ‘I trust this person isn't going to reveal something that I wouldn't want them to,’ that basically makes sure that they're actually doing their job as a leader and not sharing stuff, not creating gossip, things like that.

The recent Edelman Trust Barometer report noted that employees trust their coworkers more than their managers, more than their head of HR, more than their CEO. Is there any kind of trickle-up effect, or are those three instances of trust separate from one another?

I think it's more the proximity of the relationship. Who we see definitely biases how much someone has an opportunity to even build trust. So the two ratings that we reported out in our trust finding were that only about a third of leaders trust their senior leaders, and just under half trust their direct manager. So more are trusting in their direct manager. And that's likely because they have that closer relationship, they have more proximity to that person, they can actually think of opportunities where that person's built trust with them. Immediate managers really do bear more of the burden of making sure they're building trusting relationships in day-to-day conversations.

Senior leaders have more of a level of visibility where they have to build trust differently. Just knowing that they can't realistically meet with every single employee one-on-one and build that same relationship, communication becomes so much more important. And visibility. So what we see with senior leaders and executives, the best way for them to build trust is to make sure that they're visible and then they're communicating effectively. That's in the big moments, those big opportunities where they have to share out their values and what they see as important for the organization.

There are opportunities where they do have those one-on-one leadership moments too, of course, not only with their direct reports, but at companies where they're on the floor, where they're meeting with people more. That's where those interpersonal skills really become important. So it's kind of twofold. It's the bigger, higher-visibility opportunity, making sure they're effective communicators and helping to humanize what they're doing even if it isn't a one-on-one connection, and then the more effective interpersonal skills that they need to use in those one-on-one meetings.

As you said, a CEO can't regularly have one-on-ones with every employee. Are there any tactics leaders could use to give employees more of a sense of a two-way relationship, like they might have with their manager?

This isn't something that we specifically got into with the research, but what I would point back to is that we see a lot of organizations build in approaches to make sure they're getting feedback from people. It's getting that feedback cycle, making sure that there's an opportunity to stay in touch with employees. Formal mentoring is one way that we see a lot of that get built in for senior executives or leaders that may not necessarily get that kind of feedback—it's really reverse mentoring, where they act as formal mentors and then they get that input from people that they work with. So by checking in, making sure that they're having good relationships and building mentoring relationships with people who are younger, who may have a different set of values, or have different experiences in the workplace to help give them some of that.

Your research found that remote workers are 22% more likely to trust their leaders than those who work in person. Can you unpack that relationship between trust and flexible work?

The key thing that we saw is that when employees see that there's some flexibility in their work, they're much more likely to rate their leader and their experiences better. So it's clearly an important thing for people to have. And I think it's more important in different contexts and in different regions, but overall, when people feel that they have work that's flexible and it's supported, they're more likely to be engaged. They're more likely to rate their leaders and their company better.

And the relationship between trust and creativity? The research also noted a link between trust in leadership and employees developing new ideas.

We see that when leaders are building trust, obviously there's the immediate impact on their relationship, but there are so many more positive benefits that I think companies don't keep in mind. When people trust their leader, of course they're much more likely to bring their innovative ideas. Especially when people trust their senior leaders, they're three times more likely to feel they can innovate in their roles. They can develop novel ideas and be more creative in a trusting environment. And vulnerability also has a huge impact on that, too. When you see your leader be vulnerable, you're more willing to bring forward those ideas you might not be comfortable about. And that's what drives innovation. If you want to help people to be more innovative, to feel more open, you need to do that yourself.

A lot of this has to do with when leaders are confronting how to best manage a project or how to best deliver something: Are they saying, ‘We have to do it the way we used to do it’? Or, ‘No, let's find a new way. This has been our approach, but let's make sure we're thinking about different ways’? And also giving people the flexibility to determine what to do. Anytime there's a new project or a possibility for people to bring in innovative or new ideas, it's about explicitly saying, ‘Let's try to find a new approach.’ Or ‘I'm open to different ideas,’ is a way that leaders might say this.

Obviously layoffs are dominating the headlines. What are some of the other bigger threats to employee trust right now?

Obviously when there are tougher times, when there are these key moments where leaders realize they have to reorganize their organization, those are times where people start to get worried and get concerned and it's easier to shut down. So that's when it's even more important for leaders to be building trust and making sure that people understand what the priority is, how they're investing in them. Just showing that you're not stopping investing in your people is huge. Layoffs are a separate piece, but for the people that stay and the people that you are growing within your organization, if you also stop investing in them at that point, you're going to lose more people. So there's a key response that leaders and companies need to have, to be able to help make sure that they don't lose the people they don't want to lose, and that they're really focusing on building those critical capabilities and that talent that they do have that they want to keep.

What are the components of that right response?

Empathy is such a critical point for people to focus on. It's a really critical skill for leaders to lean on, because of course it helps to build that trust. And also human relationships are just based on that. People want to know that you feel and understand what they're doing. And it's not just something that leaders have to do, they actually have to show it.

Thinking about the innovation component, which we know is so important when companies go through a tough time or obviously when there is a downturn in the economy, we know that that's going to be a big piece. So anything that leaders can do to help build psychological safety, but also make sure they're thinking about what people will need in terms of real support, real resources. Showing that you're investing in them is one thing, but making sure that you don't pull away the things that are going to help people do what they need to be successful as well.

Beyond a one-on-one level, how does empathy show up if you are a senior leader trying to convey this for an organization?

It's just showing an awareness of how people are feeling. When it comes to empathy, we know that it is more something that is critical when you build those one-on-one relationships. And then when it's in bigger communications, it's how you use your tone, it's how you speak to how people might be feeling, and show a clear awareness and understanding of that.

How can leaders make sure that they’re accurately understanding how people are feeling and responding appropriately?

Just based on my experience and what we've seen senior leaders do well, it's really stating the feeling, acknowledging the feeling that people are having, and then saying why it's important and showing that you understand. You want to make sure that you actually call it out.

Caring about employee wellbeing is another behavior your report highlighted as a driver of trust. What are some effective ways to convey that?

In the pandemic, companies literally were showing, ‘We care about your wellbeing because we're going to keep you at a safe distance from each other. We're going to do all these things and implement actual safeguards for health and wellbeing.’ There was a very visible way, and now I think it's turning. It's going to vary a little bit by company, if you're in person, if you're not, how you actually show you care about somebody's health and wellbeing. But I think it's declaring it as a priority. But also, wellbeing is about people not burning out, which is the biggest risk that we're seeing right now to wellbeing, especially for leaders themselves. So for lower-level leaders in the organization, it’s making sure that you're providing that support and the resources, and you're also saying that you're doing that because wellbeing is a priority.

What's the best way to make sure that those verbal messages of caring about wellbeing aren't being received as self-serving, or leadership patting itself on the back?

That's where every leader needs to understand their audience. Show you're continuing to check in with people about, how this is feeling? As a senior leader, it's all about communication.

Any best practices for doing those check-ins?

There isn't necessarily one way. Some leaders are really good at just checking across people from different functional areas to see how they're feeling. But certainly surveys are a great tool and there's a lot of different feedback mechanisms to do that. We use one that we like a lot, that's more of an ongoing quick check-in survey rather than a long, lengthy survey, because a lot of people get concerned about survey fatigue. So I think it's all about what is it you're trying to learn, and then you have to craft the method to get that feedback in the best way possible.

What’s in your quick check-in survey?

It’s more specific to the behaviors that leaders are developing. It’s proprietary technology that we use that checks in on these seven specific behaviors. It would allow people that are around you to quickly respond just via text to say, ‘Yes, this, I'm seeing this frequently,’ or ‘I'm not.’ And it gives leaders feedback explicitly on those behaviors to say, ‘Oh, am I doing a good job here or not?’ It's that kind of continuous feedback to allow them to get better and develop.

Sharing thoughts and rationale for decisions was another behavior identified as a driver of trust. What does that calibration process look like for deciding how much transparency to prioritize—especially in tighter economic times, when there might not be time or budget to unpack every decision as fully?

It's more in conversations. When leaders are talking to people about, ‘This is what we've decided,’ they always need to have that why. It's not going back to each little decision. It’s really more about the big decisions and when things get communicated and making sure people understand, ‘Here's where we're coming from, this is how I feel about it.’ If leaders do that, of course it helps people to understand and be able to move forward with change a lot better.

Some CEOs are getting praised right now for sharing vulnerability and accountability in their layoff messages, for example. In more day-to-day moments outside of crises, how can vulnerability be built into the way that leaders show up?

It’s something that a lot of companies haven't put into practice in a lot of ways. So how can we make sure leaders are using the opportunity to be vulnerable when it arrives? We don't want people to constantly be sharing vulnerable things. It's about finding the right opportunities to do that.

To give you one example, when people are working from home and somebody just had a change in their schedule or they need to do something at home differently. As a leader, and I've done this a lot more frequently over the past couple of years than I used to, I will share, ‘Oh my gosh, I completely understand. Here's an example of when I had to shift my hours or do something different to be able to be there for my kids at home when I was virtually schooling.’ So there's that personal vulnerability. There can also be work vulnerability where people are thinking about a mistake or something that they've done, and leaders want to help them to understand that it's expected, especially if you want to be in a culture where you need to fail fast and learn faster. I think those leaders can really clearly express it by sharing, ‘Here's an example of when that's happened to me.’

What are some other reasons why trust might be lower right now?

We came through a really tough time. So I think our expectations of leaders really got high, especially in companies or in industries where leaders didn't normally care about where you worked, how your health and wellbeing was, all of that. So there's a big expectation increase that's happened for people. In those times, that helps us to then look more for those opportunities to say, ‘Are our leaders really meeting our expectations? Are we really seeing that people still care?’ People are starting to think about, what does it mean to have a human work experience anymore? What is uniquely important? And they're looking for more from their leaders for that as well.

And there's all this uncertainty right now. There's a lot of ways that people are feeling about work and even some of the disruptions at work, things like ChatGPT, technologies that might be replacing certain roles, and people feel vulnerable about that. And then of course there are the new challenges that companies are facing. When there's that kind of uncertainty out there, it makes it harder for people to trust. and leaders may not be taking as many opportunities as they need to help build that trust.

What would be your advice to leaders right now in addressing anxiety around AI specifically?

Depending on how their industry or team is being impacted by it, it’s confronting that people might be feeling concerned or unsure of what the impact is. So just continuing to reassure where they're uniquely valuable, where they're uniquely human, is such a big part of that. And I do think that we're going to see more of that having to happen, because there's definitely a disillusionment that follows on something like this, where people feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, do I even need to do this anymore?’ Of course it's a change to how people work, and it's a change to how people can also get their work done. So the best way leaders can help to embrace that change is by pointing out, ‘Here are the wins for our team, if we can use this tool, and then here's how we build on that.’ I think savvy and smart leaders that have those interpersonal skills to build trust, but also that are savvy enough to see what's ahead and help show that vision, can really make a huge difference.

This is also where the vulnerability component comes in a little bit more. We don't know exactly how this is going to take place, but to remind people to focus on what they do know, what's in their control, and of course to make sure to help them feel supported in whatever's going to come. But so much of this depends on the scenario and leaders need to be able to pick up on those signals and think about what's the best way to show vulnerability and draw on these different behaviors to do that.