Almost three out of 10 employees actively distrust the senior leaders in their organisation, according to a new survey of some 10,000 people carried out by The Kenexa High Performance Institute.
Fewer than half the respondents (48 per cent) said they trusted their leaders, 28 per cent said no and a quarter (24 per cent) were undecided.
The report's author, Dr Rena Rasch, said that such mistrust could have dire consequences on staff retention, employee well-being and organisational performance.
"Using odds-ratio calculations, we can predict that employees who distrust their leaders are nine times more likely to seriously consider leaving their organisation. They're also 15 times more likely to report unreasonable work stress and seven times more likely to feel mentally and physically unwell. Where a high level of distrust exists, HR practitioners should intervene to avoid a damaging impact on retention, well-being and organisational performance."
According to the report, Trust Matters, the three behaviours that primarily affect whether employees trust or distrust their leaders are: integrity (are they honest?), benevolence (do they care about me?) and competence (can they do their job?).
"To gain the trust of employees, and to reap the rewards of a more engaged workforce, senior leaders need to be honest, benevolent and competent and they have to be seen to be so," said Dr Rasch.
"Leaders can achieve this by listening to employees, empathising with them, being true to their word and treating people fairly. One of the easiest ways to cultivate employee trust is to start trusting your employees."
The study found that employees are twice as likely to trust their senior leaders if the organisation has published a mission statement, conducted an employee opinion survey, sponsored a quality improvement initiative, gathered customer satisfaction feedback, conducted yearly performance reviews or cross-trained employees.
"The more of these best practices that the organisation engages in, the greater the level of employee trust in the leadership," said Dr Rasch. "Improving levels of trust is not only likely to save money on hiring new staff, it may also reduce sickness and absence costs."
When analysing whether certain groups of employees tend to trust their leaders more or less than others, the report finds no significant difference between men and women. However, the percentage of people who trust their leaders seems to decline with age.
Employees in their twenties are twice as likely to trust their leaders as employees in their forties or fifties. Upper and mid-level managers trust their leaders by 15 percentage points more than rank-and-file employees.
"Knowing which employees are generally less trusting can help HR practitioners to target their interventions on the most at-risk groups," said Dr Rasch.