Resolve to foster trust up and down the ranks

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

What do you know about the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval? Good Housekeeping magazine is a basic component of the publishing business — especially of magazines that target women — and it has a readership of about 1.5 million.

The GH Seal was recently featured on the “CBS Sunday Morning” news program, which traced the history of the seal for the past 100 years. An unusual aspect of the current seal (“Replacement or Refund of Money Guaranteed by Good Housekeeping”) is the magazine’s guarantee — not the manufacturer’s.

CBS interviewed one vendor who reported an unusually large increase in sales of his product on QVC when he achieved the GH Seal and used it in his advertising. Over several generations the magazine has convinced readers and consumers generally that they can trust products that carry the seal. In many student marketing exercises, research has shown that people look for the seal almost without thinking. Perhaps there is a message here for managers and not just marketers.

Trust is a powerful attribute for a person or a company or a government to have. The coins and currency used in the United States carry the inscription “In God We Trust.” Citizens express confidence that although their money is not backed by gold bars, it is backed by the integrity of the U.S. government (regardless of which party is in power.)

Patrons of restaurants trust owners, chefs and servers not to set forth tainted food; this is not true in every country. Most of the time, automobile owners trust a dealer, a repair shop, a mechanic to do what is necessary to fix an identified problem. Boat owners trust the marina staff. Is it possible that people learn to trust or learn to distrust?

Consider the divide between the West and Iran over that country’s nuclear development. When there is distrust, what can be done to reverse it? Or consider the distrust between North Korea and the United States. Can distrust lead to a mistake in gauging the other side’s intentions?

Military historians could teach business managers a great deal about the power of trust. Or even consider the past 18 months in the United States, as political campaigns and their associated rhetoric dominated the airwaves. The most telling issue of trust portrayed there seemed to be between the wealthy and the middle class.

Looking at such distrust from a more general perspective, author Steve Siebold, in his recent book, “How Rich People Think,” identified 21 ways they think differently. Pick up the book at your library and consider the many trust issues it raises.

But what is trust? Trust is the expectation that another person/company/country will not take advantage of me, regardless of my ability to monitor or control them. Trust is one of the most important outcomes of consistently treating others fairly. A Wharton study identified trust as the “social glue that holds things together.”

Furthermore, many studies have found that trust is critical to long-term relationships. In addition:

• Trust is positively related to job performance

• Trusting working relationships (worker-manager as well as worker-worker) allow workers to concentrate on assigned work and not be looking over their shoulders and wasting valuable time

• Trust is positively related to the financial performance of an organization

• Trust reduces turnover

• Trust must be earned

• Trust is the essential ingredient that holds members of a team together.

Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire-Hathaway and one of today’s most admired billionaires, always offers the same counsel to fellow executives: “Trust is like the air we breathe. When it is present, almost no one notices; when it is lacking, everybody notices.”

False sense of security

The irony is that most executives and owners believe their managers trust them, most of their managers believe they are trusted by their supervisors and most supervisors believe they are trusted by their staff. Yet, viewed up the chain of command, most people do not trust their boss and many do not believe their boss trusts them.

It’s counterproductive for a company’s managers and employees to try to work together in a trustless environment; the result is performance that is less than what’s possible. What can be done to change?

In earlier columns you have read about attitude surveys that normally would identify the trust issue as a problem. How many marinas or manufacturers have invested in such a human resource development tool? In today’s world it is rare for employers to spend scarce resources on training.

Let’s consider the indicators of a lack of trust; then we can look at remedies.

Managers rarely see rather obvious indicators that employee trust is missing in the work environment. Consider these:

• Employees who are angry (about most things)

• Employee performance that never seems to exceed minimum expectations

• Employees who always seem to be covering their posterior — with documentation

• Employees are argumentative, even about minor points

• Employees are afraid the “boss” will take all of the credit for their efforts

• Managers (at all levels) tend to micromanage employees to ensure that all work is completed according to established standards

• Managers are afraid to let go and allow employees to do things their own way

• Managers believe they have to be present all the time

• Managers remember every mistake an employee has made in the past decade.

Do you find that any of the situations described above might be in your overall work environment (surely not in your immediate situation, and goodness not when you consider your situation with your own boss)? But do you feel trusted by those above and those below?

What can be done by managers (at all levels, from boardroom to engine repair supervisor) to create a more trusting environment? Research studies abound with novel ideas on some of the same themes. Consider whether any of these ideas might be novel in your own work environment or more broadly in your company:

Senior managers love to say their people are their most important resources, and they do feel that way in most cases. However, does their behavior suggest they walk the talk? What do managers do to show they indeed value the work and the ideas for work of others?

How do you delegate work, or how is work delegated to you? Often the boss has a particular way to do a task. However, it may not be the best way to do this task. It is merely one among dozens or more. Is your worker allowed to choose how to do a job where no critical specification is called for? Are you? One major athletic retailer refers to this as its golden rule: People are allowed to choose how to do their work, but they own their mistakes and are recognized for their successes.

Build rapport — not an easy task. It requires you to be a great listener (not just a good one). Managers who are listening take good notes, are quick to follow through and are responsible enough to proactively address immediate needs and requirements to help you be more successful.

Effective managers are good at engaging with difficult personalities and situations. For example, people don’t like having a much younger boss. Instead of seeing them merely as difficult people, make it your responsibility to empower them and help them be more successful. After they receive well-deserved recognition, they quickly forget about age.

Effective managers must establish their credibility (not about past positions and previous titles). The most effective managers always follow up, are true to their word, have a proven track record and have a reputation for getting things done.

The best managers earn respect through performance. Not only do they stress business outcomes, but they also serve as mentors and sponsors who help teach others how to do the same. High-performance managers get their hands dirty and are not afraid to roll up their sleeves. Strong managers also are consistent in their approach and style: how they operate, how they get results and how they build teams and relationships within the organization. Above all, they don’t have hidden agendas.

Be a strong communicator. Always take the time to communicate across all levels of the organization to get to know everyone directly and indirectly involved with your company and department (those who could potentially influence outcomes and decisions). This extra step always makes it easier to communicate needs for your team and allows them to more effectively communicate with the key players in the organization. Because your credibility will have been earned, it helps others to learn to trust you (knowing that you ultimately had their best interests in mind).

Communication can help break down departmental silos and create interdependency among people, building strong workplace alliances. It improves relationships and creates an effective group-think environment that further promotes teamwork and consensus. Your staff will recognize what you have done on their behalf.

Talk to your own boss and ask about his or her degree of trust in you and how you can grow that trust. What might your boss tell you about others in the department and company and their trust in you? You need to know this, and your boss will likely be pleased that you want to improve that level of trust.

Taking a risk

If you are brave, have a meeting of your staff. Tell them you have just read an article about trust in your boss. You want them to tell you anonymously about their trust in you.

Ask them in the next 30 minutes to consider two questions: On a scale of 1 to 10, what is the level of trust you have in me? Consider, discuss and reach a consensus of one number on that scale. Identify three things you would like me to do or do differently that would improve your trust in me as your leader (three things will keep you busy for a while).

Then leave the room after they have the assignment. Arrange for another person (clerical, perhaps) to go into the room and collect the one-page document and place it in an envelope addressed to you and bring it to you privately.

A follow-up session in about a week should have you telling the group that you appreciate their efforts and here are some ways you are going to try to accomplish what they say is needed.

Most readers are not the kinds of risk takers who will do this, but if you are it could start to improve trust throughout the organization and boost the bottom line. If this starts at the top, imagine the results. Are you a risk taker?

Taking note of the above ideas will put you and your company on the road to achieving that GH Seal of Approval — or maybe a marine industry seal of approval. Remember, that seal represents trust.

Trust is a bond between individuals and between teams and their supervisors. It can never be expected or imposed. It is earned through example and reinforced through success and recognition. Never lose sight of the importance of trust as an essential component of leadership.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.

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