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The importance of trust in the workplace: An HR leader's role

In this Q&A about her book Unleashed, co-author Frances Frei discusses why trust is so important in the workplace and how HR leaders can help maintain it.

Trust in the workplace is essential to building successful companies, and HR has an important role to serve.

In the book Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, authors Frances Frei and Anne Morriss refer to trust as the basis for collaboration. Trust is what binds people together. In the workplace, when employees feel trusted by their leaders, they may feel empowered to step forward with new ideas and opinions.

In this Q&A, Frei, Harvard Business School professor and co-author of Unleashed, said that, when employees feel trusted, they are also more likely to trust in company decisions and judgements instead of resisting those changes. Even if employees don't understand why something is happening in the moment, they are more likely to trust that the change is in their own best interest if their employer has proven trustworthy in the past. In other words, people tend to give people they trust the benefit of the doubt and suspect selfish goals if they don't.

Frei also explained how HR leaders play a key role and how they can help drive efforts to build workplace trust.

Why should HR leaders be especially concerned with trust in the workplace?

Frances Frei: The HR function is the only function that is entirely about people. It's not like they're the only part of the organization that's thinking about people, but the only thing they're thinking about is people. So, if trust is broken anywhere in the company, at any level in any function, HR is the [function] that's got the broad view. HR knows best practices. It's not that it's HR's responsibility [to single-handedly repair trust], but HR leaders and their teams are the center that can help see advanced warning of it cracking and help bring best practices to the solutions.

Frances FreiFrances Frei

How can HR leaders help repair trust when it's broken?

Frei: Trust breaks down due to [issues with] authenticity, logic or empathy.

HR helps us pinpoint which of the three it is so that we can get the prescriptions. It's not the obligation of HR to fix it, but they really help people get a secure sense of the diagnosis and sharing of best practices.

Let's say somebody does a survey at Uber and finds that Uber doesn't have trust with the drivers. If you don't know which of the three [issues is responsible for trust breakdowns], you're just going to try the things that worked in your last place of work. An accurate diagnosis lets you get a really carefully curated prescription.

Read a book excerpt article about Unleashed here.

How can HR leaders help workplace trust grow?

Frei: I want HR to have the most progressive practices. I want HR to be able to accelerate best practices. And here's what I would say: Speed is your friend. Don't have a multiyear effort. Too much cynicism and too much delay get built into it.

Start now, and do it as quickly as possible, and let the organization catch up to you.

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