Article: Building trust for a positive employee experience

Life @ Work

Building trust for a positive employee experience

How do we create the right environment of trust at workplace and avoid surprises?
Building trust for a positive employee experience

When the boss says, “Can you stop by my office? I have some feedback for you,” our natural reaction is generally less than that of excitement. As employees, we may shutter when receiving feedback or performance ratings – and in some cases, we may even prepare for a tough negotiation. Yet when we are asked about this process, we logically expect and welcome ideas for doing better. So how do we create a system that allows for open feedback, sharing, and discussion related to performance? The answer seems to center around the concept of trust.

As I travel around the region, I often hear executives talking about improving organizational culture and building more trust in management. With organizations growing in size and complexity, it is not surprising that the distance between employees and senior level management seems to be growing. Finding ways to make sure that messages are consistent and trust in leadership can be an ongoing challenge. In addition, many organizations want to foster trust to create more powerful relationships and engagement in the workforce. Research tells us that trust is linked to team performance1 and that creating a culture of trust can create powerful outcomes.2

The Great Place to Work™ Institute has been measuring trust inside organizations for more than 20 years and produces rankings of companies in many countries. They measure areas related to credibility, respect, fairness, pride, and camaraderie to provide insight into over 10,000 organizations around the world. I have had the opportunity to work with GPTW on a joint research project across eight countries in Asia and we find a strong linkage between psychological safety and teamwork in those companies that are highly ranked as best workplaces.3 As it turns out, the best workplaces rank higher on factors such as behavioral integrity, organizational support, and relationship networks  – all critical factors related to managing performance and addressing performance feedback.

Acting with integrity, providing employee support, and creating strong relationships may seem rather fundamental to experienced managers, yet the data tells us that getting these factors right can be a challenge as we strive to create an environment of trust. In fact, when we don’t get these factors aligned, we are more likely to have surprises in some way with the performance management process. Creating a psychologically safe workplace built on trust can help us avoid surprises.

While the element of surprise may be fun at a party, surprise is never a good situation when it comes to performance discussions. Of course, most bosses don’t intend to create surprises when sharing performance feedback, it just seems to happen sometimes. In fact, most surprises are simply a matter of divergence of opinions and perceptions over a period of time that create an element of surprise when two people sit down to discuss performance. So how do we create the right environment of trust that helps us to avoid surprises? Here are six steps that may help.

The element of surprise may be fun at a party; however, surprise is never a good situation when it comes to performance discussions

Cascading performance goals and measures

When an overall goal is shared by a variety of people and is shared in some form at multiple levels, the progress toward that goal can be made much clearer in the organization. While this may not be possible with all goals, having shared and cascading goals can create strong alignment and provide an opportunity to share overall status on a frequent basis. Of course, it is important to always create goals that are SMART.

Performance as a mutual commitment and promise

By casting the discussion between a manager and employee as a mutual commitment to success, we shift the discussion from “What you will accomplish” to “What we will accomplish together.” For each of the goals and areas of responsibility, it is important to have clarity on what will be accomplished, why this is critical for the boss, and what the boss will do to support the employee. 

Discussing consequences at the start

Agreeing on the consequences of either high or low performance during the goal-setting period can help avoid surprises at the end of the process. This requires strong discipline and may prove difficult in a dynamic context when priorities are shifting. However, this is also something that can be done at frequent intervals as well to help remind and calibrate throughout the performance cycle. 

Setting regular intervals for expectation alignment

The old idea of setting annual goals and then meeting at the end of the year to evaluate the progress of those goals is a process that has mostly vanished from progressive organizations today. Very few businesses operate with such predictability. Instead, we are often setting goals, measuring progress, and discussing feedback in short intervals. This not only prevents surprises but also helps to refresh and re-align to the needs of the business.

Allowing for self-evaluation

One of the often missing pieces in the performance process is the process for objective reflection and evaluation. When individuals are forced to reflect on their own performance and rate their own performance against targets (or even against their peers), many people will take a conservative view – and may even under-value their own contributions. Creating a self-evaluation step in the performance process can serve as a healthy check and calibration.

We can rethink the performance management process in a way that perhaps allows us to avoid surprises. By avoiding surprises, we demonstrate integrity, build stronger relationships, and are in a better position to show organizational support for our employees

Taking a team approach

While performance management is considered to be focused on the individual employee with individual impact, the actual work processes typically involve a team effort. Making performance management more of a team orientation can help a positive and transparent process of considering results, supports, and improvement areas.

Regardless of the type of organization or location, the need for a fair performance process is important for employee engagement and motivation. Creating an environment of trust may not be easy, but we can rethink the performance management process in a way that perhaps allows us to avoid surprises. By avoiding surprises, we demonstrate integrity, build stronger relationships, and are in a better position to show organizational support for our employees. Perhaps next time the boss says, “Can you stop by my office?” We are able to respond with enthusiasm as we jointly calibrate our expectations on our mutual promise for success! 


1. De Jong, B. A., Dirks, K. T., & Gillespie, N. (2016). Trust and team performance: A meta-analysis of main effects, moderators, and covariates. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1134.

2. Schoorman, F. D., Mayer, R. C., & Davis, J. H. (2007). An integrative model of organizational trust: Past, present, and future.

3. Smith, R.R. & Tan, V. (2018). The making of successful teams: A study on psychological safety and great workplaces in Asia Pacific. GPTW Research Report 

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