How do you build trust as a leader?

TLDR: Leadership doesn't want anonymous questions, but that means that some people don't feel safe asking questions. How can they build trust instead of just expecting it?

Our company just implemented a regular Q&A with the board where any employee can ask a question. It started with the option to add anonymous questions, but after a few weeks, they decided they want a more transparent process and they're discouraging anonyomous questions (you still *can*, it's just STRONGLY discouraged, so no one is). No one was asking toxic questions before, but they were asking some hard questions anonymously.

Since the change, there's been a notable drop off in questions, even though the audience has grown. The few questions that get asked are mostly questions about the business, not employee wellbeing. There are a couple employees that feel comfortable asking about employee wellbeing who pop up regularly, but it tends to be the same people.

On one hand, I understand their reasoning--it allows them to see the person they're answering, get context for their work area, and answer followup questions. They've been good about not causing blowback for employees that ask hard questions and asking hard questions has gotten some good results.

On the other hand, leadership doesn't quite seem to understand that as the company is growing, they don't get trust automatically. Even if they know they'll create a good space, new employees are coming from backgrounds that might have built worse expectations. Employees from marginalized backgrounds might be more reticent to ask a question that might label them as a trouble maker. It's plain scary to ask the CEO a question about a problem.

I think I can safely assume best intent and leadership has said that they want to hear questions about how to make it better. I'm planning on talking to my CEO about it (still a smallish company so sending him a message isn't out of line), but I wondered if anyone had anything I could suggest to encourage the transparancy he wants, the difficult questions that make Q&As valuable, and exists in a reality where aksing questions hasn't been safe for some people.

sunnymoe's profile thumbnail
I think if they want to build trust they have to show trust. Trust that anonymous questions are good and make people feel safe. The fact that they are now discouraging anonymous questions would NOT help me trust them. Admitting they were wrong would build trust. Doing something for employees solely (not for profit) would build trust. Asking what employees want (ie flexible hours, WFH) and then actually implementing those policies build trust. At the end of the day, it sounds like they want to be trusted but don’t show employees the same courtesy (just based off this example). That’s not nothing. That would be a big turn off for me as an employee.
annekevictorica's profile thumbnail
That's really tough and I can relate to staff who want to feel safe sharing their genuine questions and feedback and I can understand what leadership is trying to get at. I think it's great that you feel like you can assume best intent - especially for a smallish company, people don't have all the answers and they throw things at the wall to see what sticks. If I were you this is what I would say to him- Offering anonymity means offering a more inclusive approach - there are many reasons why some people don't feel comfortable sharing feedback as openly as others, such as cultural norms, experience with discrimination or abuse at work, neurodivergence, etc. And these may have nothing to do with your company.- Be open and say you changed your mind on the anonymity issue because you're getting less feedback than before, especially challenging questions that you want to hear. That will build trust.- Ask more targeted questions, or frame questions in a way that makes giving constructive feedback easier. For example, a survey that's entirely quantitative and anonymous. It's easier to give a 1/5 than to respond to an open-ended question with details (people don't want to hurt colleagues' feelings and they don't want to identify themselves)- Compile the most difficult questions you have gotten from staff. Be open with the team in a call or email and share an overview of staff feedback, what you've done already, and how that's feeding into HR/Ops/org-wide priorities. - When sharing org'l announcements, don't oversell it. When you launch a new policy or process as something life-changing, that makes it very difficult for people to offer critique. Similarly, if you're asking people for feedback, do it early on so they feel like you actually want their ideas to influence next steps, versus if you wait until you have a final product.- Hand over some power to others, especially those who have the biggest concerns. It sounds like some people continually ask well-being questions. Maybe those people can serve on a committee to discuss, coordinate and help design solutions related to well being. Hope this helps! Good luck!
jbonasso's profile thumbnail
According to Brené Brown the number one trust building trait of a leader is asking for help. This is because vulnerability levels the playing field and makes us feel more connected, which allows us to trust at deeper levels. My suggestion would be for leader ship to start being more vulnerable and instead of asking for others to ask questions, maybe they should be the ones asking the hard questions. The only way employees will feel comfortable being vulnerable as if their leaders are doing the same. A lot of this is outlined in her Dare to Lead book. She also developed some thing called BRAVING (It’s an acronym that stands for qualities and traits that help to build connection and belonging) that would be very helpful for them to look up, understand, and exhibit to their employees.
MaureenOchs's profile thumbnail
Wow i love this!
jbonasso's profile thumbnail
I'm so glad you found this helpful!! I know it feels counter-intuitive to be vulnerable as a leader but it's actually one of the most powerful ways to lead with integrity. :)
ChristineTaylor's profile thumbnail
The situation you’ve described is indeed toxic and discouraged transparency. #1 step to building trust is to be consistent. #2 never make any change without an explanation and buy in - first. #3 lead from a place of empathy which means lot Sid things but in the most basic way it means understanding your power as a leader means you cannot get honest answers in research unless there is no way to identify those who give the answers.They need professional consultation to step in if they want any accurate research. People without bias and who specialize in this.
madisonpollardshore's profile thumbnail
If they are willing to have semi-transparency, maybe asking what team the person is in, but not the name of the person. This might give them some insights into issues in different teams, or trends among a similar seniority of people, but allow people to feel a little less exposed?
paigelowe's profile thumbnail
UPDATE: Thank you everyone for the responses.When I posted, I did honestly think the leadership were well intentioned but didn't understand how to get employees to trust. My initial meeting with leadership went well and we did figure out a strategy to try to allow for anonymous questions. It blew up when someone asked a difficult question about diversity, anonymous questions went away, and (based on the CEO's answer to the diversity question that prioritized privileged comfort over equity), I ended up leaving the company. So even if they had best intent, that's absolutely not enough.So seriously, anyone reading this because you're in a similar situation, if you're the one asking as an IC and your leadership isn't thinking about it, things are probably worse than you know.