Why trust is so important in employee engagement

As I struggled with deciding what article to read, what book to focus on, or where to take my next post, Simon Sinek‘s most recent TED Talk, Why good leaders make you feel safe, was posted in my company’s enterprise social network (ESN). And every bit of it speaks directly to my heart, to concepts I’ve struggled with long before I chose this topic to blog about for class. As he says,

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

He also gave a remarkable example of how this played out, in a real company. When Barry-Wehmiller was hit hard in the recession in 2008, instead of laying people off to make up the $10 million shortfall, the CEO decided on a novel approach:

Every employee, from secretary to CEO, was required to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. They could take it any time they wanted, and they did not have to take it consecutively. But it was how (the CEO) announced the program that mattered so much. He said, it’s better that we should all suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot, and morale went up.

They saved twice what they needed to, in part because on their own, the employees voluntarily started trading time off. Workers who could more easily afford it would take more time off so that those who could afford it less could take less time off. As Sinek predicted, remarkable things happened.

And I wonder why we all don’t instinctively know this; or if we do, why we ignore it. It is the same for us at home, in our social circles, or wherever we go. If we don’t feel safe, we don’t give our best. We might do our duty, or do what we need to in order to look good or to save face. But when we truly believe that the people around us have our back, we give it our all.

I vividly remember a situation I found myself in where I was really scared to take action. I knew many of the consequences of acting weren’t desirable; the consequences of not acting, worse by most accounts. But the decision in the end was not about weighing the consequences. It came down to trust; to knowing that if the tables were turned, the other person would have done it for me. And that gave me the courage to push past my fear and act.

So great, I now not only feel this viscerally, but can also name it. Describe what trust means, and why it matters. And I can absolutely see how and why a lack of trust detracts from engagement in an ESN.

  • If you don’t trust that your contributions will be appreciated, why bother?
  • If you don’t trust that your leaders have your best interests in mind, why put yourself on the line?
  • If you don’t trust that your co-workers also have your back, why chance that they will use what you post for personal gain?

I also have a much better appreciation for why community management is more about culture than anything else, and often involves culture change. Don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely have engagement in a culture that is not based on trust. Fear of consequences can and does motivate people to act. But the kind of engagement you’ll get in that kind of culture will be unlikely to bring about results that are better than they were before the ESN was implemented. And it surely isn’t going to increase overall employee engagement in the deeper sense.

Now that I’ve nailed that part of it, I’m off again to start digging into how to deal with the problem. What can be done to move away from fear and toward trust so that employees

will give us their blood and sweat and tears to see that their leader’s vision comes to life….

Or in this case, to feel free to contribute and participate in their company’s ESN to further the goals of their company.


  1. Trisha Liu · May 15, 2015

    Fantastic post Tracy, thank you for sharing this! I love Simon Sinek’s work. I especially love the example of teammates trading off on unpaid time off, due to caring about each other and feeling kinship and connection to the company. If that isn’t an amazing illustration trust being shown by the CEO, and the huge positive effect it can have, I don’t know what it is!!

    As for safety and why we ignore or do not work to create safety, I can unfortunately think of a lot of reasons. Some of us were taught to fear vulnerability and sharing. Or even actively taught not to do it. Or we simply didn’t have anyone around us modeling it. Or we think, “I’m just one person, my actions won’t make a dent.” I was having a conversation with my husband this week. It was about driving in a car and using the turn signal. I wish more people would use their flippin’ turn signals!! What can I do? I can’t control anyone else. But *I* can use my turn signal more. I can choose to use it habitually, to make it important when I’m driving. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” can sound corny, but it’s also true.

    Regarding community management, I always see it as my job to make people feel safe and welcomed, both directly in the discussion threads and behind the scenes. This mindset guides my choices on how to talk with people and what to share. If anything, I err on the side of over-sharing. That’s me “being the change” again. 😉

    Your bulleted list of trust questions are meaty and worthy. I hope there are existing success stories you can collect and spread, in order to take power away from those fears.

    Liked by 1 person

    • tracymmaurer · May 16, 2015

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Trisha (and sorry my first response got cut short – the result of trying to post from mobile while bouncing in the passenger seat).

      Everything you said makes so much sense. And I wonder if the reason that leaders forget is that they have not generally had it modeled for them in their employment experiences. So we assume real trust, the deep and abiding kind, is something that belongs at home; or at least somewhere other than work.

      And yes, I’m off in search of stories like the ones in the TED Talk. Even better, stories of a leader who learned and changed to instill trust.


  2. Tracy – I really enjoyed reading your post and watching the video. It’s hard to trust leaders who don’t lead by example. I find it very rare today and can’t say I’ve seen it in many organizations. One of my friends from Japan just posted a similar video about Haruka Nishimatsu, the CEO of Japan Airlines (JAL), who cut his own pay to $90,000 amidst layoffs and cutbacks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqFxK3GMEkA.

    Liked by 1 person

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