• Jeff Doolittle

How Executive Leaders Build Trust



In the fast-paced digital workplace, building trust is increasingly challenging and vital for executive leadership teams. Trust takes place between two people and must be earned. The events of this past year have only made the challenge of building trust more critical and more challenging for executive leaders. The recent 2021 Edelman Barometer study involving 28 countries and over 33,000 respondents revealed that the global pandemic, economic crisis, and social justice concerns have sped up the decline in trust globally.


Merriam-Webster.com defines trust as "the reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something."

Trust holds organizations together during change, making this decline particularly concerning. Furthermore, executive leaders have heightened expectations to lead on societal issues with the same energy, consideration, and passion as organizational results. As the world changes, people and organizations must change too. CEOs, CXOs, heads of business units, and top management team members are expected to be their organizations, visionary change agents. An important question to ask about executive leadership is if an executive leader can build trust during change and be considered trustworthy, given the decline in confidence?


Building Trust During Change


Numerous studies demonstrate that executive leadership is a critical determinant of successful organizations and organizational change. Change events, regardless of being departmental or company-wide, benefit from executive engagement. Executive leadership teams provide vision, establish strategy, prepare the corporate culture for change, and motivate employees to change. This is important because trust has been shown to mediate openness to change and, ultimately, the outcome of change.


When trust is present, organizations navigate and manage change with improved outcomes. Change events heighten emotional responses making communicating effectively challenging for the most skilled executives. Establishing trust during change requires executive leaders to focus intently on:

  • Building rapport.

  • Inviting and responding to emotional responses.

  • Explaining change clearly and concisely.

Growing expectations placed on CEOs and leading in an environment of low trust demands that executive leaders rely on proven guidance for communicating effectively. Executive communication that creates openness to change and builds trust includes:

  • Vision – The idealized goal for the organization to achieve in the future. Communication during change events should link to organizational values and provide enough detail so employees see the roadmap and benefits of the change. The goal is to create positive attitudes toward change and support for change.

  • Energy – Demonstrating personal excitement. An executive leaders' positive emotions and mood are contagious. Research has demonstrated that leadership communication that enables followers to experience positive emotions results in enhanced happiness and well-being. In return, the enhanced positive emotions of followers increase employee motivation, cooperation, and support for change.

  • Support – Providing encouragement, reassurance, listening, and sharing feelings are ways executive leaders demonstrate support. Research has found that when individuals receive help, they are more receptive