ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

Trusting staff and trust from staff

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 24 May 2021

Leadership and collaboration expert Heidi Gardner, a distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and former assistant professor at Harvard Business School, shares why trust is crucial within the workplace.

“The definition of trust is to be willing to make yourself vulnerable to another,” says Heidi Gardner, who has written more than 70 books, chapters, case studies and articles on topics including leadership and collaboration. 

For Gardner, the importance of trust lies in what people can do when they work effectively together. 

“There’s this concept called smart collaboration, which means that people are working together in order to tackle more complex or tricky issues that they couldn’t do on their own,” she says. 

This collaboration, Gardner explains, is the key to being innovative and successful. 

But to enable this collaboration, there needs to be a solid base of trust. According to Gardner, this comes in two forms: interpersonal trust and competence trust. 

“I need to believe in your integrity, your character, that you'll share credit, you won't be difficult to work with or undermine relationships. But beyond being a decent person, I have to believe you're competent. I have to believe in the quality of the work that you produce. And both of those kinds of trust – interpersonal and competence – are necessary,” she says.

So, how does one develop this trust in the workplace? 


Building up interpersonal trust involves cultivating a reputation, says Gardner. 

“If I don't know somebody and I'm considering working with them, chances are I will use referencing. Either I’ll ask somebody who's worked with them, or take a look at their reputation inside the company,” she explains. 

“One way or another, I'm trying to gather enough evidence to decide whether I can make myself vulnerable to them.”

Getting those references can be essential to help employees gain the trust of their employers and line managers – and vice versa. It’s getting someone to vouch for the employee and finding out first-hand what it’s like to trust them and be vulnerable to them. 


Showing that you are competent, or finding out if another is competent, comes down to output. If the body of work is not delivered on time, or accurately, then trust that an employee can do a job will disintegrate. 

“It’s less subjective than interpersonal trust,” says Gardner. “I can take a look at work that somebody has produced and derive an assessment as to whether it’s high quality, on time, on budget and so forth.

“But, both of these hinge on receiving a steady stream of consistent signals about someone’s trustworthiness.”

That consistency is especially important in a profession such as accountancy, which is an inherently trust-based profession, Gardner points out. 

“You need to provide assurance to clients in the market about the integrity of your deliverables,” she says. 

“It’s astonishing to me when I see people who operate as if they can be a Jekyll in the one situation and Hyde in the other. In order to expect that people are willing to trust you, you have to behave in a trustworthy way across every one of your stakeholders,” she adds. 


Another essential ingredient for trust is creating the right culture. 

If managers do not assume positive intent and something goes wrong, then it can quickly resort to a culture of blame as opposed to trust and collaboration. 

“Managers should genuinely believe that their employees are making their best effort with the best intentions, and if something goes wrong, that it's not intentional, and it's certainly not a personal slight,” says Gardner. 

“And if they didn't deliver, perhaps it's on the leader for having not communicated expectations or not ensuring that they had the resources they needed, or not equipping them properly in terms of skills.”

Challenges often come when a new employee comes into an organisation at mid-level. It can be difficult to enter at that stage when on the one hand they need to bring client relationships with them from their previous firm, but on the other they want to show they are trustworthy with new clients and will not poach them when they eventually move on. 

Gardner says organisations need to make sure they are ‘well equipped’ in order to take on a new hire in this situation. 

“There needs to be some accountability for individuals in the hiring group to help make that person a success,” she says. 

When things go wrong

Inevitably, sometimes things do not go as intended and trust breaks down. 

“It’s so easy for a breach of trust to happen,” says Gardner. “It takes so much less time than it does to build trust.”

When starting over again, it’s important to go back to that space of vulnerability, she says. 

“In order to repair that damaged trust, the person who breached the trust needs to make themselves vulnerable by admitting their mistake, apologising and asking for a second chance.

“That demonstrates that they’re willing to trust the other person and not take advantage of them when they’re in a difficult spot,” Gardner explains. 

“It also requires people to have very transparent and explicit discussions about what expectations are and then opportunities to demonstrate one’s trustworthiness again. That is when trust really starts to build back up.”

Hear more at Virtually Live!

ICAEW's flagship three-day digital conference returns for 2021 with a session exploring the importance of trust in business, as well as sessions on protecting human rights and fraud risks.

ICAEW's flagship digital conference returns for 2021. Virtually Live will be held on 15-17 June 2021
Insights special
Trust in organisations

Questions around public trust in companies, trust in the profession, trust in charities, and trust in government arise time and again. In this Insights Special ICAEW unpacks the building blocks of trust, and how organisations build, maintain or rebuild trust.

Insights special
Restoring trust in audit and corporate governance

‘Restoring trust in audit and corporate governance’ is the BEIS white paper that sets out proposals on strengthening the UK’s corporate governance framework and the way companies are audited. Read ICAEW’s views on the consultation, explore what restoring trust means, and share information on the reform agenda.

A megaphone
Stay up to date

You can receive email update from ICAEW insights either daily, weekly or monthly, subscribe to whichever works for you.

Sign up