Growing engagement by building trust in the talented workforce

„Trust and fairness, justice and appreciation form the basis of a healthy employee-employer relationship.” (D. Rousseau 2004)

Trust in the talented workforce

Major studies of human capital trends in Europe and around the world show that companies are struggling to engage our modern, 21st century workforce. Furthermore Gallup research shows that only 13% of employees are actively engaged at work. And this issue is becoming urgent, as studies show additionally that the workforce, typically the most highly skilled and motivated talents are going to change jobs, leaving the company. What is missing? What is the talented workforce lacking even in times of economic prosperity, when new jobs are created? Among the different drivers of engagement, trust appears to be under the top ranked ones. Building trust is an essential basis for a healthy employee-employer relationship and hence part of building a successful Company.

Defining trust leads to four different aspects: “someone (trustor) trusts something or someone (trustee) with respect to something (competence, intentions) depending on the condition”. (Noteboom, 2002)

We trust in people, organizations, institutions, authorities etc. Both people and organizations can be the object of trust in their competences, their intentions and honesty or truthfulness. The connection between both can be the function and position people have and the roles they play in the organizations.

Competence trust refers to communicative, cognitive and technical skills. At company level it includes commercial, innovative, organizational competence. Intentional trust refers towards the relationship compiling of two dimensions dedication and trust in benevolence. Trust may vary under certain conditions of behavior, split into outside and inside conditions. Outside includes the system, market and norms of conduct.

Trust has a variety of foundations, rational reasons, and sources, psychological causes. The development of trust is related to learning, in the sense that one needs time and experience to understand people’s competencies and intentions and to identify with them. Building trust and establishing a trust process within the organization focusing on behavioral trust, trusting others in the organization, leaders, management and co-workers as well as understanding trust to be an important prerequisite for cooperation plays an important role in attracting, developing and retaining talents. What ensures that the employee perceives trust? What is the success factors management and HR can take care of in order to build or strengthen trust in the workforce?

Success factors – building trust in the workforce

Looking at the employee-employer relationship, trust plays an important role even before employee and employer meet in person. Through communications as a company or employer trust is an important prerequisite that influences if the employee whether he or she is applying or not. In order to attract talents communication is success factor number one taking in mind that one (company or person) cannot not communicate. Furthermore leaders, management and HR have to ask oneself if they are taking the psychological contract seriously. In order to build trust in the workforce taking the psychological contract seriously as a framework for understanding the employment relationship based on expectations and promises shaped by ones personality and individual expectations, communication regarding these expectations as well as the chronological order of performance and reward seems to be another success factor to build and strengthen trust in the workforce.

Leadership, leader’s behavior ensures the trust development within the employee-employer relationship. By creating a vision and mobilizing commitment to this vision, leaders can transform organizations. The congruence of the described better future within the vision and the expectations of the workforce, leads ideally to perceiving trust and respect. By providing the foundation of challenging, innovative thinking, followers are stimulated intellectually and motivated. In addition the charisma of a leader as well as the way confidence is expressed, strengthen trust in the workforce. In terms of breaking the psychological contract, it is not the fact of breaking, but the way breaking the contract is dealt with.

In developing competencies and practicing contingent reward by keeping promises made or show recognition, trust should increase. Taking in consideration that treating and rewarding each employee differently according to their needs and capabilities and giving them personal attention. Beside the development orientation, mentoring and providing feedback paired with constructive criticism to help employees improve their skills and competencies. To ensure the exchange of information on expectations, needs and wishes, individual thoughtfulness supports the relationship development needed to build and strengthen trust.

How to support building trust, decreasing the brain drain and supporting the Talent Management?

The number one priority on the HR agenda was and still is to attract, develop and retain talents. “With the exception of the projected talent (…) shortages, nothing has affected retention and engagement more than the loss of trust”. HR Professionals will be well advised in helping to build a strong climate on trust and supporting and educating leaders at all levels in the organization to become trust-builders. Training leaders in trust is important for improving both leadership and engagement.

Building trust between the team member and the leader, leaders must be equipped with the leadership retention and engagement competencies critical for creating committed workforces. Leadership trainings consisting on self-reflection, 360 Degree Feedback, individual coaching and interactive workshops provide the basis for improving these competencies.

HR has to play an active role when selecting leaders on retention and engagement competencies and assessing their accountability for retention and engagement. With a multi-level process on assessing and developing key talents, we established a valuable approach to improve talent management within the group. In a first step potential for further leadership position is evaluated by the manager and approved by executive board. Moderating this process through HR ensures a fair procedure. Communicating effectively with the key talent regarding the expectations on both sides, fostering the understanding to individual needs and views further strengthens trust in the beginning of the process. Focusing on a set of competencies assessing critical retention and engagement leadership capabilities within a 360 Degree, Self-assessment and development center, forming the basis for an individual talent development and coaching process. Constant mentoring support and monitoring retention and engagement issues through dialogues from both manager and HR ensures minimizing risks of losing talents.

Building trust in not a one-way-street. Trust demands learning and employees need to continually explore and renew themselves through learning. Conditions for building trust requires an ability to change. This ensures constancy. Flexibility to change is a learning process. HR needs to be a facilitator in order to support this process. Attracting, developing and retaining talents requires serious attention from all sides: HR, management and employees and their co-workers.


  • B. Nooteboom, “The trust process” in B. Nooteboom and F. Six (Eds.), Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc., 2003
  • F.D. Frank, “The Race for Talent: Retaining and Engaging workers in the 21st century” in People and Strategy, 2004
  • C. Hardy, “Trust and the virtual organization”, Harvard Business Review, vol. 73, No. 3, p.40-50.

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