Discover the big disconnects in performance management today in the 2024 State of Performance Enablement report.

David Horsager: ‘You Can’t Have Honest Conversations Without Trust’

By Michelle Gouldsberry
April 4, 2023
3 minute read

What’s driving the crises facing businesses today? David Horsager suggests that we’re overlooking the importance of trust. 

He would know: Horsager is the author of “The Trust Edge,” CEO of the Trust Edge Leadership Institute, and a champion of the transformative power of trust. Trust Edge’s 2022 report showed that 94% of employees say trust affects their performance at work, and 86% believe their trust in others is linked to performance.

“You can’t have honest conversations without trust,” Horsager says, and your people can’t reach their full potential. We asked Horsager to share his advice for operationalizing trust across your organization’s performance management processes.

Clarify the ideal outcome

Clarity is a pillar of trust, Horsager says. To build trust during performance conversations, managers need to intentionally clarify the outcomes they expect. Only then can managers and their staff work toward that shared goal.

The goal-setting process often requires differentiating between the larger goal and the actions employees take to support that outcome. “You might start with a clear priority, but what does that actually look like?” Horsager says. “That outcome needs to be absolutely clear.”

Extend that clarity further to specific time frames and deadlines. Setting these types of expectations isn’t easy, Horsager says, so leave space for discussion. 

This clarity also applies during performance conversations, so set the expectations early, and follow through. “People trust the clear and mistrust or distrust the ambiguous,” Horsager says. “Reviews really go south if we aren’t on the same page about what we’re reviewing, what we’re trying to get to.”

Connect as humans

Connection is another pillar of trust, Horsager says. Without connecting through frequent interactions, employees can’t learn to work with or trust their peers. Connection starts with removing barriers and providing opportunities at the organizational level.

“When I see siloing in an organization, I know we’ve got a counterforce to connection and collaboration,” Horsager says. “You have to have space, within boundaries, where we actually connect as humans — so that we can collaborate, so that we see each other, so that we know each other.”

Connection via frequent check-ins builds trust because your team members aren’t left in the dark about their status and performance. “I had a mentor one time who said, ‘If it takes you more than an hour to do an annual review, you’re doing it wrong,’” Horsager says. 

If you want to build trust, make sure your employees are never surprised by the content of a performance review.

Maintain consistency

Something as simple as a scheduled meeting cadence between managers and employees has a big impact on trust. “Trust stays high, and virtual performance goes up, when people have predictable meetings with their supervisor,” Horsager says.

That concrete touch point reassures team members that they’ll receive clarity in a timely fashion. “If people don’t know when they’re going to be checked on again, they can feel alone in the abyss,” Horsager says. 

Regular conversations remove the uncertainty and imprecision of annual performance conversations. “People are worried about inaccuracy — they might not feel like they have time to share why they did certain things. There’s a lack of context sometimes,” Horsager says.

With ‌trust built through ongoing meetings, managers and employees can have deeper conversations with the circumstances and context fresh in everyone’s minds. 

Align statements with actions

Healthy accountability creates a high-performing culture and drives business results. It’s the final step in the clarity established at the beginning. “So many companies I go into, I either see unhealthy accountability or no accountability — and that all ties into performance reviews,” Horsager says.

Responsibility, or a sense of personal liability, is a cornerstone of accountability. You need both to build trust effectively. The more team members prove themselves to be responsible, the more their managers and peers will trust them to remain accountable for their performance. 

Employees, meanwhile, need to trust that their manager has the right intentions when holding them accountable. “It’s really hard to be accountable to someone we do not believe cares beyond themself,” Horsager says. “Accountability works best when people know they’re valued.”

Without trust, people feel they have no one to rely on — that they’re alone. With trust, you can create a community of high performers working toward shared business goals — and that gives you a competitive edge.

Learn more about How Trust Informs Performance for Long-term Business Value.

The link between trust, performance, and business value