Do you trust your boss?

A third of employess no longer trust their boss, according to our exclusive MT/ILM poll...

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Who's there left to trust? The British have never been known for their naive, trusting nature, but the events of 2009 are pushing even our home-grown cynicism to its limit. If it's not bankers awarding themselves big bonuses when we've spent £1.2trn bailing them out, it's MPs billing us to have their moats cleaned and ducks rehoused. When stones are lobbed through the windows of Sir Fred Goodwin's Edinburgh villa and MP Hazel Blears has the tyres of her Citroen Xsara slashed, you know things have got bad. Ordinary people are angry.

Such is our fury that trust has hogged the headlines for months. How can trust be rebuilt in government and business? Do we trust our leaders to get us through the recession? It seemed important that MT, with the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), should investigate what trust there is between employees and their managers and leaders. Together with consultancy FreshMinds, we polled 5,673 people at work, of whom 2,938 were managers and 2,735 were not.

Respondents came from the private, public and charity sectors, and their organisations ranged in size from the tiny to corporates employing thousands of people. We asked people how much they trusted their line managers and their CEOs, which gave us a unique snapshot of the state of trust within organisations.

The results of this, the first MT/ILM Index of Leadership Trust reflect the zeitgeist - with close to a third of respondents (31% of non-managers and 28% of managers) having low or no trust in their management team.

So, what does it mean to be trustworthy? The survey results show that employees trust CEOs who they believe can do their job well. The leaders also have to be principled and honest. The most trusted line managers, meanwhile, are also highly competent, understand what is involved in their employees' roles, are principled, honest and treat people equally. How well do you measure up?

The length of time someone has been a line manager or how long a leader has been in post have an important bearing on employees' levels of trust. The longer a CEO has been in his or her job, the higher the level of employee trust in them; contrariwise, non-managers are especially distrusting of new CEOs. Similarly, the longer someone has been your line manager, the more you tend to trust them. Overall, people trust their line manager vastly more than their CEO - by a full 10 index points.

Yet this feeling of trust is also affected by the length of time an employee has spent working for his or her organisation: so, the longer a staff member has been employed, the less trust they have in both their CEO and their line manager. New employees may display high levels of trust in their leader initially, but this erodes over time. There's an important caveat: if the length of time someone has been your line manager and the length of time you have spent with a firm remain similar, trust stays high. In other words, as long as an employee retains the same manager throughout their employment, they exhibit high levels of trust.

Levels of trust also relate to the size of an organisation. As it increases, so trust in the CEO decreases. Lowest trust was found in respondents in large companies with a new CEO. Highest trust was seen in small firms where the CEO has been in post a long time. The size of a firm has some impact on line-manager trust too, with employees in small companies reporting high levels of trust in them.

Taken together, these findings point to the importance of intimacy - real or imagined - in creating a feeling of trust. The better you know your line manager, the more likely you are to trust them. People want their bosses to stick around. Trust takes time to build and earn, after all, and face-time matters.

When a direct relationship cannot be formed with a CEO (as is the case for most people in corporates or public-sector mega-organisations), higher levels of trust can be engendered if they are in the hot seat for more than a year or two. Familiarity and a proven track record make for a more trustworthy leader. But if a CEO is new to an organisation and distant from staff, employees look for other proxy factors on which to base their judgment. According to our research, CEOs tend to be considered more trustworthy when they're of a similar age and the same sex as the employee. If your chief exec looks like you, you're more likely to trust them - not good reading for many leaders.

And the battle of the sexes continues ... Our most shocking finding was that male non-managers trust their CEO less if she is a woman (55 index points, compared to 62 index points for a man), but find their line manager more trustworthy if she's female (70 index points, compared to 68 points for men). Female non-managers show a trust index of 65 for female CEOs, compared to just 59 for male CEOs, but no difference in trust levels for male and female line managers (70 points for both sexes).

If men without managerial responsibility prefer their line managers to be female but their chief executive to be male, does this mean that the stereotype of the nurturing woman, good at day-to-day organisation but not tough enough to lead, is still alive and well? Not if the managers in our survey are to be believed. In fact, male managers trust their line managers more if they are male rather than female (71 points compared with 69) and state an equal amount of trust for their CEO whether male or female (65 points for both). Women managers, on the other hand, trust their line manager more if she is female (by two index points), as well as their CEO if she is female (although the difference is only marginal). Women trust other women more as both their line managers and their CEO, confirming the critical need within organisations for having women as both managers and chief executives in attracting and keeping female talent.

This is of particular importance for large organisations, first, because our survey found that the degradation of trust over the course of employment is experienced most profoundly by female employees. Second, because female trust in CEOs is particularly low in organisations with 1,000 employees or more - likely to be related to the scarcity of female CEOs within these organisations.

But who are the UK's most and least trusted leaders? Overall, private-sector CEOs are more trusted than public-sector CEOs. Areas where they are least-trusted are media and national/local government for managers (no surprise there), and utilities, wholesale distribution and travel and transport for non-managers. Managers in catering, hospitality and charity trust the CEO the most, compared to retail and the military for non-managers.

Financial services came off better than might be expected. Managers in the industry have fairly average levels of trust for their CEOs, while non-managers have a lower level. Managers, meanwhile, rate their line managers highly. So while those outside the sector might not trust a banker as far as they could throw them, their colleagues on the inside have somewhat more faith ... Things are looking up.

Download the full report at

NO - Training executive, UK corporation

A 30-year-old trainer in the British subsidiary of a multinational corporate, our interviewee chose to remain anonymous - because she has very low levels of trust in her line manager. Her female boss manages another two colleagues and has been in the post for only a short while. 'It has been a temporary thing,' she explains. 'It's not a permanent fixture. So the lady we've got in the role at the minute is on an 18-month contract.'

Ms Low Trust has had three different line managers in the space of four years, which - as our survey shows - contributes to an overall deterioration of trust. 'You need to rebuild trust every time there is a new line manager,' she says.

The firm is still debating whether or not to axe the job. She is in two minds: 'We are three fairly senior managers and are quite self-sufficient, so do we need to have a manager? But often the things we engage with are massive pieces of change, which, from our perspective, does need somebody to lead it.'

That such a high turnover in line managers has a negative effect on trust is obvious, but our interviewee also doubts her manager's ability to do her job. 'It's not that I don't like the woman. She has a lot of integrity, and she does what she says she is going to do, but the issue I have is around her competence. She struggles with things and I feel like I have to support her.'

Our interviewee complains that she doesn't trust her boss to give her the information she needs to get her job done - either com-municating it badly or failing to 'get it' at all. 'She forgets to tell me things, and when she sends out e-mails, they are unclear. I have to pick up the phone and ask her to go through them with me, because there isn't much clarity. I'm a bit of a stickler for it - that's my style. All this slows me down, because I have to check things or go and do them myself, and my time costs money.

'Quite often, she will go off and engage in conversations with senior managers about things that we need to achieve, and I don't have any confidence in her getting the information I need. It gets to the point where I feel like saying: "Get out the way and I'll go and do it myself!"'

YES - Gary Cook, Head of supported housing, Community Gateway Association

A clarinettist and saxophonist in the army for 25 years, Cook now works in Preston, Lancashire, as a senior manager within a 170-strong housing association that looks after 6,500 properties, 448 sheltered homes and 1,800 'telecare' customers in the local area.

Cook places a high value on trust, something that was instilled in him during his time in the services. 'If you're put in a position where you are likely to have to fight, you've got to have absolute trust in the NCOs,' he explains. 'Management in the services is all about team-building, and I think that's why I feel so comfortable with housing associations.'

Cook has worked in housing associations for 14 years, the last two and a half at Community Gateway Association, running a department of two middle managers and a team of 36. His levels of trust for his organisation, line manager and chief executive Diane Bellinger couldn't be higher. The organisation is less than five years old, and the management team has worked hard to build trust among its employees, says Cook, by being open and honest with them, and by allowing them to learn from their mistakes.

'I think trust is key to most things within an organisation, particularly for motivation,' he adds. 'If you've got a really good chief executive with the right values, they tend to trickle down. Values are really important: we do what we say.'

And what about management? 'When it comes to your line manager, trust is a two-way thing. You want to trust your line manager to make sure you both know what you should be doing and that he treats you the right way; but he also needs to have trust in you to know that you are going to do your job properly.'

What makes someone trustworthy? 'It's very much the things that make an organisation trustworthy: being honest with people and having some transparency in the way that you do things. As soon as you are unclear about what you are doing or why, people will start doubting and mistrusting you. And once you've lost the trust of people, it's very difficult to get that back again.

YES & NO - Kay Morrill, Plus Account specialist, HSBC

Banks have borne the brunt of public anger during the credit crunch, so what has the view been like from the inside? Kay Morrill joined HSBC in the thick of it last October, having worked at various PR firms after graduation.

Originally from Newcastle, the 25-year-old found her present job in Edinburgh after drawing up a wishlist of trusted companies. 'I was getting my bank card out and I thought I've always liked HSBC, I've always trusted them,' she says. 'I thought it would be a good company to work for.' It's Morrill's job to phone HSBC customers and to try to sell them an upgrade to the Plus account. She works as one of a team of eight in a department of 150, and is managed by her team leader.

She has high levels of trust for her company but lower levels of trust for her manager. 'HSBC was one of the only ones that didn't get bailed out by the government,' she says. 'There has been quite a lot of publicity about HSBC doing pretty well, especially compared to our Scottish rivals RBS and HBOS. I feel so pleased that I don't work for them! I think our CEO (Michael Geoghegan - see profile, p50) must be doing something right, because we have made a lot of money this year.'

Morill's relationship with her line manager was dealt a blow in the spring when a restructuring was poorly handled. 'I was trained up till Christmas. We went back in January and had a big departmental meeting, when we were told there were going to be a few changes in our jobs. We got more training, but a lot of us felt that our new roles weren't really what we hoped for.

'There were a lot of secret meetings and whispering - it felt like a lack of trust around the whole department. The team leaders didn't want to tell us what management was deciding, but we're the ones doing the jobs, so surely we should be the first to know? I feel like we weren't told the 100% truth; we weren't lied to, but we just weren't told everything.

'My trust waned a little bit in the spring, but it's definitely on the increase now. I think it's quite positive that you can keep trust in the company even when things do go a little bit pear-shaped once in a while.'

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