How leaders can build trust across the whole organisation

Building trust not only between individuals but also systemically – between teams and across a whole organization – is vital for enhanced business performance and employee wellbeing. I offer three practical solutions for increasing trust through better quality dialogue, more constructive challenge and healthy interactions between teams at different levels. 

Trust, not authority, is the only glue that will hold organizations together in a diverse, global, technology-empowered world

Paul Polman, CEO Unilever

Trust is a hot topic in business. Since the 2008 financial crash and a seemingly never-ending stream of scandals such as bribery in big pharm companies and the Volkswagen emissions debacle, there has been a proliferation of ‘trust’ events to explore how to restore a better relationship between companies and customers. In a recent article in the FT (18 July 2017), Michael Skapinker argues that shifting the focus from talking about trust to building trustworthy organizations through changed behaviour is the right next step. I wholeheartedly agree.

I recently led a session on ‘Improving our Dialogue’ for a leadership team of IT specialists in a large innovation organization. Their collective role – to act as a ‘conduit’ between the people on the ground and the senior leadership team (SLT) above – was pivotal to making the organization work.

What emerged from the dialogue session that I facilitated was a collective sense that the IT team was uniquely placed to gather valuable feedback from their direct reports to inform strategic decision-making by the SLT. They were also able to operationalize the strategy formulated by the SLT by translating it into actionable items for staff although some of the IT team wanted additional role clarity so that they did not inadvertently ‘overstep’ their mark.

In their interactions across the organization, therefore, trust was needed. People on the frontline will only give honest and open feedback if they feel safe to do so, without any fear of the repercussions of speaking out. The IT leadership team in turn needed to know that the SLT had their back if they were to deliver difficult messages upwards or make challenging and performance-enhancing requests, such as the ways in which the strategic principles would shape procurement decisions. Absent trust, the critical interface between the IT team and the SLT would be more of a wall than a wellspring of creative energy.


‘High-trust organizations’ have been demonstrated to outperform low-trust companies across a number of measures. Paul J. Zak, the author of (2017) Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies, used various sources of data to measure the impact of greater trust on both organizational performance and employee wellbeing. In his 2017 HBR article, The Neuroscience of Trust, Zak concludes:

“Building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference, employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies.”

Creating greater trust is a high leverage – and delicate – move. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, affirms this perspective when he states in the foreword to John Blakey’s (2016) book The Trusted Executive: “As the CEO of a global company, I am conscious each day that trust is fragile; one rash word, one mistake, one accident can wreck many years of good work.”

As a practitioner and corporate psychologist, my curiosity – and expertise – is how to help leaders to develop trust. Strengthening connections by building trust in one-to-one settings is important but not enough; it also needs to happen, crucially, between groups. In order for any team or organization to innovate, people need to collaborate. Fostering trust systemically is, I believe, a critical frontier to cross in many organizations.


Creating a safe and energizing environment where people can work together productively is critical for business performance, particularly where there are silos such as teams working at different levels or in different functions. Achieving shared goals across a system is within the reach of any leader who is willing to listen, learn and experiment.

Here are three suggestions that arise out of my 15 years experience coaching intact leadership teams and facilitating across organizational boundaries where trust building is critical.


The most telling moment in a meeting often occurs when someone stops being polite and starts being real instead. They might share some disappointing news, express some anger about an issue or confront someone or even a whole team about their behaviour. What happens next is crucial. It determines whether dialogue, which typically begins with a ‘moment of truth’, can actually get underway or stops dead in its tracks.

If trust is absent, people will retreat to their corners and take refuge in returning to politeness. Whilst this bypasses the initial awkwardness, it also creates an atmosphere thick with what’s unspoken. People close down, feel claustrophobic and make superficial conversation instead of talking about what really matters. Lack of psychological safety is a high price for any leadership team to pay.

To enable dialogue to happen, leaders need to pay attention to creating the conditions where trust starts to build. Instead of getting down to business straight away, start a meeting by attending to relationships. Ask people to say a few words about how they are feeling, invite them to share what their best outcome for the meeting would be and – most importantly – listen to the emerging themes as these can be used to shape the agenda in a powerfully engaging way.

Slowing down a meeting at the start enables people to cover more ground later in the meeting. Once a ‘container’ starts to form – in other words, a holding environment in which a real conversation happens – ideas can be shared, decisions can be made and robust exchange can happen more easily. Creative dialogue will only take place, however, when people trust that it’s safe to share.


We are often rewarded in our roles for the ideas we bring, the actions we take and the goals we achieve. In skillful, trust-building dialogue, however, there needs to be a balance between our agency and our receptivity. Research by psychologists Losada and Heaphy has shown that in the dialogue of high-performing teams there is a 1:1 ratio between ‘advocacy’ where we assert ourselves and ‘inquiry’ where we demonstrate curiosity. If you’ve ever sat in a room full of people giving their opinions with little or no interest in what others have to say, you’ll know how draining self-absorption it is.

As I worked with the IT leadership team, we started our dialogue by surfacing the questions that were engaging, energizing and had some edge. After working in trios, we honed the emerging lines of inquiry by articulating big, broad open questions. For example, we moved from: Are we fulfilling our roles as IT specialists? to: What can we do to clarify our role? Inviting people to talk openly about important questions that matter to them helps to create a trusting atmosphere. Keeping questions free of judgment helps to sow the seeds for a fruitful dialogue.


In the case of two teams coming together where one team is more senior than the other, there are several dynamics to attend to if trust is to be established.

The more senior team needs to take responsibility for creating the space where a productive dialogue can emerge. ‘Speaking truth to power’ does not just happen, it needs to be carefully facilitated and encouraged. It is not enough to assure more junior colleagues there won’t be any negative consequences as a result of speaking out. Senior leaders need to proactively encourage dissenting voices that differ from their own view by asking, for example:

  •  What are our blindspots?
  •  Is there anything important missing?
  • If you were to play devil’s advocate, what would you say?

For their part, the more junior team can help themselves to be heard by developing their collective voice before they face the challenge of ‘speaking upwards.’ After our session together, the IT team were in a much stronger position to discuss with the SLT how they could clarify and possibly expand their role by contributing to the IT strategy having created some consensus between them.

The IT leadership team could also help to build a stronger relationship with the SLT by anticipating the areas in which they were likely to be challenged and actively leaning into these. After making a presentation to the more senior team, for example, they could follow this with an invitation to a conversation where they shape the discussion with some questions that they’ve agreed in advance. For example:

When feedback is proactively sought rather than imposed through a free-for-all Q&A, a more productive dialogue that leads to great trust is likely to occur.

  • What have you appreciated about what we’ve shared?
  • Which ideas do you think have the most potential?
  • How might we develop our thinking further?


Building trust between individuals, across teams and throughout an organization is a big challenge with a potentially huge payoff. My experience of working internationally with leadership teams across all sectors has shown me that it is possible to generate greater levels of trust systemically. Taking time to cultivate healthy relationships by attending to the quality of dialogue, actively managing the dynamics between differing levels of seniority and ensuring that challenge is handled constructively in a meeting means that teams can work together in a more agile, strategic and innovative way. Businesses, teams and leaders can win back trust by actively building trust through changed behaviours.

Sarah Rozenthuler is a Chartered Psychologist, Leadership and Dialogue Consultant and published author of How to Have Meaningful Conversations (2012) and Powered by Purpose (2021.) She has over 15 years experience helping leaders and teams to build trust and unlock their collective intelligence through better dialogue.

Sarah Rozenthuler
Sarah Rozenthuler