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The Official Baldrige Blog

Regaining Trust: Lead with Facts, Listen, and Act with Empathy

Green road sign that says Welcome to Trust, Enjoy the Journey
Credit: Sam72/Shutterstock

If there is one primary attribute of successful leaders, I would assert it is the trust they have built with their stakeholders. It is now a year since our faith in organizational leaders and all that we believed has been rattled by a pandemic and the social inequities in our culture. I commented on the role of trust in a leader's ability to achieve inclusiveness in a recent blog.

The publication of the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer (PDF) reinforced the global need for leaders across sectors to regain trust. In a recent Deloitte Insights (PDF), Deloitte Global CEO Punit Renjen asserted, "rebuilding the world's economy, our health and safety, our climate, and human relationships requires a renewed commitment to trust."

To start the discussion, let me offer a definition of trust from the article by Renjen,

Trust is our willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of others because we believe they have good intentions and will behave well toward us.

Current State of Trust

Why is it so important for leaders to regain trust? Let me share some information about the current state of trust from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. The study involved an on-line survey of 33,000+ people in 28 countries. It looked at trust in business, media, NGO's, and government. Of those four sectors, in 2021 only business was seen as both competent and ethical, with a trust index of 61, up 2 points from 2020. Local trust was considerably higher, with a trust index of 76 for "my employer." For comparison, in the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer, only 20% of the respondents trusted business leaders to tell the truth and make ethical and moral decisions. 

86% of the respondents expect CEO's to publicly speak out about societal challenges and 65% agree with the statement that CEO's need to hold themselves accountable to the public and not just the board of directors or stockholders. From 2020 to 2021, there was a 49 point net increase in employee expectations that employers need to keep workers and customers safe.

In the 2021 study, trust in spokespeople reached an all-time low for academic experts, company technical experts, "people like yourself", NGO representatives, and regular employees. All of those spokespeople had a credibility rating higher than government officials.

The Leadership Challenge

Senior leaders who are trusted, always have an advantage with employee and customer engagement, which in turn yields enhanced "business" outcomes. (See next section.) In a blog in 2015, I wrote about building trust as a new leader and then establishing a reservoir of trust. Those recommended actions are still relevant.

However, recently, I have been thinking about specific actions that are most relevant at the current time for regaining and maintaining trust. As indicated above, based on the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer a key action to take now is keeping employees and customers safe.

Drawing upon information from recent publications by Accenture and Deloitte (PDF), as well as other sources, the single most important way to build trust is through developing positive, durable relationships. So the next logical question is, how does a senior leader build those relationships? The answer is through good judgment (competence), consistency, intent, and listening.

  • Good judgment refers to leader competence that is relevant, that is able to execute on promises and plans, and that is credible.
  • Consistency refers to a strategy and actions that align with organizational culture.
  • Intent refers to the meaning behind a leader's actions. The actions should reflect genuine empathy and caring for the wants and needs of key stakeholders.
  • Listening refers to earnest two-way communication and active listening to what stakeholders say.

To achieve these four aims, people want data. According to Stephen Denny and Paul Leinberger in a recently released book entitled Unfiltered Marketing (YouTube), people want to form their own opinions based on senior leaders who are unscripted in their communication and share raw data rather than filtered interpretations.

Organizational agility will be necessary. 

The Business Case for Trust — The Data

Let's start with our four aims from the last section. According to a 2019 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, leaders who displayed 60th percentile ratings for consistency, good judgment, and positive relationships received an 80th percentile trust score.

In a May 2020 study conducted by Deloitte, they found that 75% of customers who highly trust a brand are likelier to try a new product or service from that brand. Furthermore, 79% of employees who highly trust their companies feel more motivated to work for the companies.

In a 2017 HBR publication by Paul Zak on the neuroscience of trust, he reported that employees at high-trust companies exhibit:

  • 74% less stress
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 76% more engagement
  • 26% more satisfaction in their lives
  • 40% less burnout

Learn From High-Trust Leaders

On April 12th—15th, the virtual 32nd Quest for Excellence® conference will feature 70+ leaders from Baldrige Award-winning organizations sharing their best practices. Attend this virtual conference and see how these leaders build trust, ask them about their successful strategies, and take away practices and techniques you can use in your organization. Also, look at category 1, Leadership, of the Baldrige Excellence Framework to see how these leaders lead.

In the meantime, consider how you can lead with facts, listen to your employees and customers, and act with empathy.

Join us for our first-ever virtual conference! 

The Quest for Excellence Conference April 3-6, 2022 - Register Today!

Quest for Excellence® Conference

Monday, April 12–Thursday, April 15, 2021

The three-day virtual showcase will feature the 2019 and 2020 Award recipients, former recipients, pre-conference workshops, senior leader plenary sessions with live Q&A, more than 70+ on-demand concurrent sessions, conference keynote, and more!

Register Today! 

About the author

Harry Hertz “The Baldrige Cheermudgeon”

I am Harry Hertz, the Baldrige Cheermudgeon, and Director Emeritus of the Baldrige Program. I joined the Program in 1992 after a decade in management in the analytical chemistry and chemical sciences laboratories at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the home of the Baldrige Program. I started my career at NIST (NBS) as a bench analytical chemist.

My favorite aspects of the Baldrige Program are: (1) the opportunity to interact with leading thinkers from all sectors of the U.S. economy who serve as volunteers in the Baldrige Program, who participate in the Baldrige Executive Fellows Program, and who represent Award applicants at the forefront of the continuous journey to performance excellence, and (2) the intellectual challenge of synthesizing ideas from leading thinkers and from personal research into Insights on the Road to Performance Excellence and other blogs that tackle challenges at the “leading edge of validated leadership and performance practice,” and contribute to the continuous revision of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework.

Outside of work I spend my time with family (including three beautiful granddaughters), exercising, baking bread, traveling, educating tomorrow’s leaders, and participating on various boards and board committees.

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Thank you Harry for an inspired article on "Regaining Trust". The definition of "trust" given by the Deloitte Global CEO is groundbreaking. He defines trust a our willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of others we believe they have good intentions and will behave well towards us. You spice it up well with the four pillars on which trust is built which are: good judgement, consistency, intent and active listening on the part of leaders.

In fact, reducing risks, means building trusts. Classic risk management must expand above and beyond financial and currency analysis to include destabilising events arising from the business environment like the Covid-19.

If strategic leaders fail to honour undertakings to employees, they will lose the trust and respect of employees, and increase resistance to change, and constrain the agility thrust of the organisation.

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