"Trust isn’t something you can expect or claim for yourself. Rather, employees must choose to bestow it on you—or not. It’s theirs to give," says Aron Ain. UKG

[This is the first of a series on the importance of trust and how leaders can trust their employees more and also gain their trust. Excerpted from "WorkInspired" by Aron Ain, then CEO of Kronos who took the helm as CEO of UKG when Kronos merged with Ultimate Software and who has since transitioned to serve as executive chair and member of the board of directors. Chris Todd, former president, now serves as CEO at UKG and has been mentored by Aron since Todd's tenure began at the company in 2007.]

As beneficial as the idea of trust might appear, it's still a pretty "soft" concept to many leaders and managers. Can individuals and organizations really nurture something as abstract as trust throughout an entire workforce? And if they can, does cultivating a culture of trust really help foster engagement and propel a team or organization forward?

Let's take these questions one at a time. Individuals and organizations most certainly can take steps to increase trust among employees. I know because I've done it as a manager, and Kronos as a whole has, too. In many cases, executives and team managers who have entered Kronos mistrusting others have become noticeably more trusting in just a few short months or years. One of our high-performing leaders didn't seem especially trusting when he first came to Kronos. That wasn't entirely a surprise. In his field, sniffing out unfavorable terms in contracts is a big part of the job. Still, over the course of a few years, I saw a clear shift in this leader's behavior—he became incredibly trusting both of me and of his own team members. He no longer assumed that only he had the best ideas. Instead, he reached out to others for input and participation. As a result, he became one of the most valuable and respected members of our leadership team.

Trust isn't something you can expect or claim for yourself. Rather, employees must choose to bestow it on you—or not. It's theirs to give. Leaders and managers can earn employees' trust by behaving respectfully and communicating honestly. And just as important, leaders and managers can take the first step and bestow their trust on employees. The best way to persuade people to trust you is not to lecture them about trust, but simply to trust them. That way, you establish an underlying expectation of trusting behavior, modeling what you wish to cultivate in your team, department, or entire organization.

In managing my own team, I don't just refrain from micromanaging—I trust enough to require independence. During the 1980s, when I oversaw our direct sales force, team members would ask to talk through a difficult decision. "Sure," I'd say. They'd describe the situation, which might have involved how to negotiate part of a contract, and they'd ask me what I thought they should do. "I don't know," I'd say.

"What do you mean you don't know?"

"Well, I haven't met the customer. You have. What do you think we should do?"

"Well," team members would say, "I think we should price it this way"—and then they'd describe their plans.

I'd shrug my shoulders. "Fine. Price it that way. It sounds great!"

The team members would stare at me. "So, I have your approval?"

I would smile. "Of course you have my approval. You're the expert on the ground. You're the one who knows the situation better than anyone else. I trust your decision making. Let's go for it!"

Make no mistake, I haven't devolved all authority to my team members. I reserve the right to overrule people when they veer off-track or to supervise work more closely. I've also held my team members accountable for their mistakes. But my default move has been to solicit employees' perspectives and let them decide. I haven't wasted a lot of time second-guessing people or assigning blame when business developments didn't work out as planned. Have I personally been burned when trusting people? Have I had to crack down on people who didn't learn from their mistakes? Absolutely! But almost always, my trust in team members has proven well founded.

As CEO, I've continued to take a largely hands-off approach to my senior team, in some cases asking them to shoulder large amounts of responsibility. When we decided to invest $150 million in Workforce Dimensions®, a new product line that we hoped would one day "put Kronos out of business" (Chapter 13), I put a small group of our senior executives in charge, giving them clear direction up front, but otherwise letting them run the project as they saw fit. I checked in every several weeks, giving feedback on the general direction and offering encouragement. Likewise, when we decided to relocate our headquarters, I charged key executives with selecting and designing the new offices, giving them some initial guidance, checking in periodically, and only making decisions on matters that I especially cared about, such as doing away with window offices for executives.

In retrospect, I've relied on my colleagues to execute just about every major strategic initiative we've attempted during my tenure as CEO. In 2009, we decided to adopt a vertical approach to selling our software. Instead of our salespeople covering geographic territories, they would sell into specific industries, like healthcare or manufacturing. We made this change because we felt our salespeople would operate more effectively if they could master the intricacies of a specific industry. Going vertical was risky. Our salespeople would have to serve new sets of customers, and we would have to structure their compensation differently. If we executed the shift poorly, morale might have suffered, impacting our sales. Many salespeople expressed concern when we first broached the prospect of verticalization. Would they receive the bonuses they were counting on? Could they really excel serving just one industry?

I put one of our executives, John, in charge of verticalization. He oversaw the plan's execution with little involvement from me. After analyzing the customer base for every one of our salespeople, John discovered that a single industry already accounted for 80 percent of a typical Kronite's sales portfolio. Armed with this data, he sat down with salespeople and showed them that for the most part, verticalization actually represented business as usual. Instead of regarding the new strategy as a threat, they started to see it as an opportunity to enhance their own effectiveness and increase their bonuses. To date, verticalization remains one of our most successful strategic moves, one steeped in and enabled by trust.

As CEO, I have similarly extended trust to other stakeholders, most notably our customers. I tend to be very open with customers, liberally sharing information and personal anecdotes. I also have a habit of taking the customers' side during a negotiation, trusting that they won't try to take advantage of us. "You're absolutely right," I'll say to them, "Kronos shouldn't be requiring that of you." I'll also frequently take the customers' side during internal conversations with members of our team. In one instance, a customer, a small golf course, was struggling to implement our software. After reviewing our contract, our service team concluded that we had performed as we'd promised and owed the customer nothing more in the way of free customer service. When the customer continued to complain, our service team came to me and told me of their intention to cut off the customer. I insisted that we continue to work with the customer to help the business succeed, regardless of whether our contract required it.

As I told them, our brand is all about customer success, and I'm prepared to trust that customers aren't trying to take advantage of us. This conversation made a big impression on the leader of our service team. Years later, she still talks about it. In general, when I have conversations like this in the presence of Kronos salespeople, they not only perceive a display of trust, but validation of our commitment to always do right by customers, even when it puts us in an uncomfortable or financially disadvantageous position.

Perceiving that I trust others, my team members feel more inclined to communicate freely about their own projects, initiatives, and new ideas. They also bestow trust upon their own teammates more often. That's how it works at Kronos: trust displayed at various levels of management filters through the organization, creating a general climate of mutual faith and respect.

If you manage others, start infusing trust into your culture right now. Provoke your people to come up with answers to pressing business questions rather than dictating them yourself. When you can, drop others into roles that will challenge them and build their confidence. Don't check in on your reports every two minutes. When mistakes occur, don't go ballistic. Hold people accountable, but then frame mistakes as "growth opportunities," giving people the opportunity to mature and achieve stronger results in the future.