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The New Meaning of CTO: Why Leaders Should Strive to Be the Chief Trust Officer

No commute! Less money spent on work clothes! The slow erosion of trust? Among the many positive features about today’s remote and hybrid workplace, one negative reality has revealed itself to be true, too: it’s often more difficult to build trust with people you don’t see in person on a daily basis, or in some cases, ever.

Trust matters at work. It’s the glue that bonds people and keeps them showing up and pitching in. Trust facilitates collaboration, exploration and growth. As a leader, creating trust with your colleagues trickles down, directly impacting results. 

So what does “trust” mean in the workplace? Does trust mean that you know your regular lunch buddy won’t “cheat” on you by having sandwiches with Betty from HR when you call in sick? No. Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of the new book Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere, says workplace trust falls into two categories: cognitive trust and emotional trust. Cognitive trust means you trust that this person has the skills to do the job well and will deliver effectively and on time. Emotional trust is more subtle and is based on the feeling that others care about you and your wellbeing.

As Neeley recently told McKinsey & Company’s Author Talks, researchers have been studying trust in the virtual workplace for decades. The conclusion? “Leaders and managers must ensure that they are developing emotional trust with the people that they’re working with. People need to know that their managers and leaders care about them.”

While cognitive trust—built up by delivery at work—can happen pretty quickly, emotional trust is different and can take longer to develop. It requires empathy, self-disclosure (sometimes called “authenticity”), and time. Here are three ways to build and maintain emotional trust.

1. Create Real Connections

As surprising as it may seem, connecting emotionally with co-workers, employees and bosses is a key piece of getting work done and enjoying yourself while doing it. (For more ways to ensure connection in our hybrid world see “Take the “R” Out of Remote”) Success depends not just on hard work but also on our ability to build and maintain genuine relationships throughout our career lives. Having employees who feel connected to a firm and engaged has been shown to improve profits by as much as 20 percent.

Making time for a coffee or an after-work chat with a co-worker, even one you only see virtually, is an easy way to build camaraderie and trust. Another fun (perhaps surprising) way to build trust across departments and up and down the organizational hierarchy is to volunteer together. Many people today want to feel that their company has values they support. Many companies create regular opportunities for team members to volunteer together. For example, people may get a day off to participate in a community event, such as preparing food for the needy, visiting a shelter or facility for the aged, or clearing trash from the beach. They generally show up dressed in their company t-shirt, and throw themselves, together, into the activity of the day.

Group volunteering can bring out parts of yourself you don’t normally express at the office, helping you and everyone else bring their whole selves to work. These activities also help define the culture of the organization and can generate a very strong sense of identity and belonging for employees. Volunteering together can strengthen social capital within teams and across the organization in very tangible ways.

Another way to build trust? Mind your manners. Seriously. While it may seem like an old-fashioned idea, manners matter more than ever in today’s virtual, high-tech world. Things like showing up when you say you will, delivering on promises, thanking others for their help and pointing out a job well done go a long way to creating the kind of positive, supportive, trusting environment that leads to success.

2. Master the Art of Feedback

While giving feedback can be a challenge for many managers, doing so well helps create loyal employees who are able to improve and grow in their jobs, and it builds trust. Good feedback means focusing on what someone did well, but also pointing out specifically where they need to improve, and then helping them do so. Many leaders make the mistake of trying to be “nice” by ignoring workplace shortcomings, but ultimately, not flagging failures leaves the person destined to repeat them.

People who are very agreeable, as a personality trait, can struggle the most with giving negative feedback, says University of Texas at Austin psychology professor Art Markman. People will soft-pedal their critique, or forget to actually deliver it.

“Agreeableness is driven, in part, by a need to be liked. If I criticize you, you’re not going to like me at that moment,” Markman says. He suggests trying the “XYZ model” of delivering negative feedback. “You say, ‘You did X. It resulted in Y. Next time I want you to do Z instead.’ Don’t attempt to analyze their motives. Just stick to desired outcomes. There should be a specific statement of what you want the person to do in the future," he says. 

Of course, feedback goes both ways: you give some; you get some. Be open to hearing feedback, and ask for it if it’s not being delivered. Then really listen, without getting defensive. Receiving feedback well helps you gain from it. It also affects your connection with managers and bosses. Getting defensive or trying to justify sub-par performance can erode trust and sabotage your ability to learn from it. Try to think of feedback as free job coaching. You can also ask for feedback from colleagues who see you in action at work, rather than relying solely on your official manager. They may provide valuable insights that no one else can offer.

3. Focus on Self-Care —Yours and Theirs

Self-care may sound like an overused buzzword more relevant to the field of social work than high-tech leadership, but poor self-care can lead to frayed nerves and short tempers, both of which can cause irritable interactions with others that, you guessed it...erode trust. Maintaining your own gym routine, your regular dinner with family or friends, your book club—if you have one—and your good sleep schedule all help you be a more reliable, consistent leader.

Being well-rested and clear-headed also builds trust by giving you the bandwidth to develop genuine, caring relationships with colleagues. “It’s not enough to care only about people’s ability to perform a job,” Scott writes. “To have a good relationship, you have to be your whole self, and care about each of the people who work for you as a human being. It’s not just business; it is personal, and deeply personal.”

When it comes to helping employees stay fresh and focused at work, establishing clear boundaries around text and email communication can help. And yes, protecting employees’ downtime is part of establishing trust. As Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella told attendees at the Wharton Future of Work Conference in April, remote work has continued to blur the boundaries between work and personal life—which is bad for them and for business. As Bloomberg news reported, Nadella framed the value of protecting employees’ well-being this way: “We think about productivity through collaboration and output metrics, but well-being is one of the most important pieces of productivity. We know what stress does to workers. We need to learn the soft skills, good old-fashioned management practices, so people have their wellbeing taken care of.”


This article was written by Aliza Knox from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to

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