6 Steps to Earning Employees’ Trust

I am often asked how I get people to tell me things that they won’t share with their manager, boss, or human resources. Certainly, part of my success is that I’m simply an outsider. I present much less of a threat to an employee or staff member than internal players poking around and asking questions.

Another reason may be an esoteric quality I bring that makes people feel safe. But beyond those intangibles, here are six tips for earning trust and getting complete and honest responses from your team–and even your family members and friends.

1. Start by showing you trust them.

In an effort to be discrete or to investigate a problem, managers and HR often withhold their reasons for asking questions of staff. This expectation for 1-sided information sharing often creates fear and discomfort in an employee and creates a guardedness in their response.

If you want your staff to trust you, start by trusting them–and showing that you trust them. Before you begin asking them a list of questions, tell them as much as you can about what you’re investigating and why their involvement is important. If you can’t give full disclosure, help them to understand the reasons you can’t say more. Let them in on your approach and mindset so they don’t feel automatically on guard.

2. Tell them why it’s important.

What is obvious to you may be obscured to someone else. If you want to know the truth, make sure the other person understands why you need to know.

For example, if you’re asking about an employee’s work hours, you may get resistance or half-truths due to fear that you’re investigating claims for over-time. If you explained that, due to recent crime in the area, you want to create a buddy system where no one leaves the building alone, you would receive a much warmer and more honest response.

3. Address their reasons for holding back.

Beyond sharing what you can with your staff (as in tip 1), address the reasons they might resist sharing information with you. Step into their shoes. Could they be afraid of retribution? Could the information they share lead to termination of another employee? Will they benefit or be hurt by the change that could ensue?

Knowing why they would hold back allows you to attend to that resistance, and make them more comfortable in sharing what they know. Your empathy toward their situation will help them to feel understood and willing to give their side of the situation.

4. Confront dishonesty.

We can all sense when someone isn’t forthcoming or truthful with us. Approach this directly, but respectfully, and avoid making accusations. ¬†Continue by asking questions from a place of curiosity, not anger or judgment.

This is effective when you use “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. For example, you might want to say “I’m having a hard time believing….” or, “I’m sorry, that doesn’t make sense to me.” Then, press them to explain the situation better or differently.

5. Remove judgment.

In asking for honesty, we’re often asking people to be vulnerable with us, and that can be difficult, especially in the workplace. When they must admit to a mistake, a lie, a bad decision, or an embarrassing detail, they are much more likely to be open with the truth if they feel safe and understood.

While you may not always be able to provide confidentiality or protection, you should always be able to offer acceptance, empathy, and understanding. I find this, when done with complete sincerity, will help almost anyone to tell the truth.

6. Let them know the consequences with grace.

Sometimes, there are consequences to what someone tells you. They may be in jeopardy, or a colleague or subordinate could get into trouble. When there is a consequence lingering, tell them what it is before you ask for the truth. The purpose here is not to threaten, but to allay fear.

Most of us fear the unknown much more than the known. By giving them clear information, you help them to decide if they can cope with the aftermath. Sharing information about the consequence also works to establish trust and shows them that you respect their ability to come forward even in light of an unpleasant outcome.

As you work to establish trust in your workforce, keep in mind that fear is the biggest impediment to honesty. When you start succeeding in your efforts to dispel fear and come from a place of sincere understanding, you will be rewarded with the trust and honesty you desire.