Losing Trust: The Impact of One Team Member on Employee Engagement

February 3, 2021

Pegs being toppled over

How Losing Trust Affects Employee Engagement

I have spent the last couple of years gathering data about the effect that trust has on leaders, organizations, and direct reports. When I think there is nothing else that will surprise me, I unearth another gem. Recently, someone asked about how trust specifically affects employee engagement.

Here is the answer that might surprise you as well.

To demonstrate the relationship between trust and engagement, at Zenger Folkman, we compiled a dataset of 97,632 manager’s 360 feedback reports. The managers were assessed on trust by their direct reports, and then the direct reports were assessed on their level of employee engagement.

Their engagement was evaluated with an index measuring the following:

– confidence direct reports had in achieving goals,

– a willingness to go the extra mile,

– a willingness to recommend the organization,

– a commitment to stay with the organization,

– and overall satisfaction.

The graph below shows the relationship between the level of trust of a manager and their direct reports’ employee engagement. It is very clear from this study that every incremental improvement in trust drives up employee engagement. On average, each manager was rated by five direct reports.

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Losing Trust

But there is more, and this is the exciting part of the data. What happens when one person on your team doesn’t like or trust you?

Trust is often challenging to build with every direct report. Often, leaders relate better to some direct reports than others. Other times, a few direct reports may require some disciplinary action when they act inappropriately. Some managers find themselves with a direct report they feel distrusts them. If you have one negative direct report, this can (on average) lower your scores, but if you do the math, one out of six should not have a devastating negative impact.

In our experience, we find that most managers lay all the blame on that one person who they feel is negative.

To study this phenomenon, we looked at individual ratings from 60,438 direct 360 feedback reports. We identified managers where no direct reports rated negatively and where just one direct report indicated their trust needed significant improvement or some improvement. We looked at their overall ratings on trust and engagement from all their direct reports. What we found was very surprising. Having just one direct report indicates that trust needed to be improved the trust rating 32 percentile points and the engagement rating 14 percentile points! Testing these differences with T-Tests, we found significant differences on both variables (e.g., Trust T-Value 153.50, Sig. 0.000, Engagement T-Value 49.38, Sig. 0.000).

The graph below shows the huge shift with lower trust ratings from zero to just one direct report. To validate these findings, we randomly selected 50% of the direct reports and reran the study. Both variables were found to be statistically significant within the random selection of cases (e.g., Trust T-Value 108.68, Sig. 0.000, Engagement T-Value 35.82, Sig. 0.000).

Implications of Losing Trust and Employee Engagement 

In previous research, we found that ratings of trust tend to trickle up and down. Think about a situation where you are looking to purchase a car. For dealership A, you read all the ratings and reviews and do not find any negative reviews. You find the overall average rating for dealership B higher, but there is one very negative review. That one review can cause you to discount the more positive overall rating. Trust is contagious. When some people trust you, others follow, but it causes others to wonder if their trust was misplaced if someone distrusts you.

The point of this article is to highlight the potential negative impact of low trust, even from just one person. Too often, managers discount the possible adverse effects that only one direct report can have, rationalizing that this is just “one rotten apple.” Still, as we all know, one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel. The problem is that if one person distrusts you, it causes others to question and look for something they may have overlooked. Distrust can have a significant negative impact.


If there is a person who distrusts you, my advice is to take this very seriously and do everything you can to find a resolution. Talk to them, identify their concerns, and work to improve the relationship

-Joe Folkman
(This article first appeared on Forbes.)

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