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The How and Why: Trust in Public Sector Leadership

And concrete strategies for improving trust by employees.


Most leadership competencies or frameworks in international organizations highlight the ability to build trust as important for leadership success. Intuitively, it makes sense, because donors need to trust how their money is spent, host governments need to trust that an international organization operating on their territory will deliver on its commitments, and trust between different parts of the international system lead to greater collaboration thereby reducing duplication and redundancy. But there is little, if any, research on exactly what leads to greater trust in senior management or what the specific benefits are of trust in senior management by different stakeholders.

Research on trust in national public sector institutions started to take off in the early 2000s and provides interesting insights also for leaders, reformers and human resource professionals in international organizations. In 2003, public administration scholars in Australia undertook a study to measure what organizational factors correlated to increased trust of senior management by public employees. And in turn, what benefits higher levels of trust in senior management brought to the organization.

a group of people following another person with a beautiful sunset n the background

The study demonstrates clearly that the extent to which employees are kept informed of the direction of, and developments within an organization, fostered greater trust in senior management by employees. But communication alone did not predict trust. Job security, as well as the extent to which employees felt supported by their organization and that they were treated fairly, i.e. that there was procedural justice, were even stronger factors in increasing employees' trust in senior management.

The consequences of increased trust were greater employee engagement and lower turnover, which is not surprising. But what the study also clearly demonstrated is that employees who trust their senior management are more open to change processes, whereas lower trust levels are linked to cynicism about reform processes and less likely to buy into them.

What does this mean for senior leaders or reform practitioners in international organizations?

The logic and justification for your reform is only one element of success. Equally important is the need for employees to engage in your reform process and implement it, and for that they will need to trust their senior management. So measuring trust before and during a reform process, for instance through engagement surveys, is just as important as a communication strategy. If the main purpose of reform is to address financial constraints, then job security will be an issue in your organization and you will need to go above and beyond in ensuring open communication and demonstrating that the organization cares for the well-being or your staff. Ensuring that there is procedural fairness particularly if when employees' employment conditions are affected, is also paramount.

For human resources practitioners aiming to support leaders in organizational reform processes, this study highlights the importance of measuring and cultivating trust between employees and senior management. Engagement surveys can help support reform process if they are designed to measure trust in management and specifically how employees gauge the communication climate, organizational support to their well-being and procedural fairness across all HR and management process, such as promotions, performance management, conducts and discipline, benefits and contractual conditions.

For more information, please read:

Albrecht, Simon and Anthony Travaglione. "Trust in public sector senior management." International Journal of Human Resources Management 14, no. 1 (2003), pp. 76-92


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