In contrast, trust in colleagues and line managers is high, according to the study of 3,000 public and private sector UK employees.
Employee Outlook: Focus on trust in leaders reports that only 34% of employees trust their senior managers. The figures for colleagues and line managers are 92% and 80% respectively.
The CIPD expressed concern about a "them and us" mentality breeding in the UK's workplaces.
CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese said trust was vital for building sustainable and successful organisations.
"We know that people want to work in organisations with a strong sense of purpose and values, and that environments of mutual trust enable people to speak up so that good ideas can prosper and bad practice can be stamped out," Cheese said.
"Senior managers should try to tap into the strong levels of trust between colleagues and line mangers by observing what's working well and increasing communications and transparency with frontline staff in order to close the inherent distance that exists between them."
The study showed trust was particularly weak in the public sector, but strong in the voluntary sector.
It also found that trust ratings increased with an employee's position. Senior managers were much more likely to report strong trust between employees and senior management than non-managerial workers.
Claire McCartney, research adviser at the CIPD, said there was a "real lack of awareness" among senior managers, who rate the trust levels much stronger than more junior employees.
"It seems they either have a tendency to view things through rose-tinted glasses, or are out of touch with how employees nearer the coalface are feeling," she said.
"If senior leaders are in denial or burying their heads in the sand, there is a danger that a 'them and us' mentality will emerge and change will be very difficult to achieve."