Take steps to rebuild trust in the workplace

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

“In God we trust.” We see this on all of our money. Well, here we are in the middle of a primary election battle that will lead to a full-fledged campaign between the major parties for the nation’s highest elected office.

Already the leading contenders have raised questions about the suitability (trustworthiness) of one another — as well as that of the incumbent president — to solve problems and properly serve the American people. One word that the candidates and those analyzing the debates and stump speeches often use is trust.

Each candidate seems to be crying out, “Trust me.” This is a critical issue because trust is at the very foundation of any organization, government or business. Our leaders must be seen as people we can trust, so that we can have a motivated work force and a team approach to business operations. Each of us wants desperately to trust our leaders.

A lack of trust in management is often found in surveys of employee attitudes and workplace environments; there might also be a lack of trust of employees by managers. Many experts argue that trust is perhaps the most important element of a harmonious and effective work environment. Organizations that have trust among employees are usually successful; those that don’t frequently do not do as well.

Management often asks, “How can we build the trust of the work force?” Like so many business actions, it begins at the top because trustworthiness can exist only if senior management sets the example, then builds that new tone into every department and unit. This takes real energy, and senior management often is oblivious to what is happening several levels below.

But first let’s try to understand what has caused the decline in the level of trust in work settings across most industry groupings. Two common issues are responsible for the destruction of what we have seen as a social contract in the workplace — an element that for decades was a magnetic force attracting employees and employers. “I will perform at a high level and be loyal to my company and, in turn, my company will do everything possible to maintain employment and keep all informed of company progress.”

Trust was enhanced in such a social-contract setting. During the last 25-plus years, globalization has damaged the social contract. Fewer companies have been able to uphold their contractual responsibilities; businesses have suddenly closed and/or transferred operations offshore. Affected employees feel damaged. Similarly, in businesses affected by globalization and more recently by a global downturn, employees who remain after a downsizing feel taken advantage of because they’ve had to pick up additional work — and at times at reduced pay. Yes, they have a job, but the trust level has been significantly reduced.

Some more specific workplace reasons that the level of trust has been reduced to an absolute minimum are quite numerous. There are many ways for managers to reverse the decline and seek to instill trust in their workplace, and it is not unusual for companies to use consultants, not only to diagnose the degree of trust, but also for a program to re-establish trust. (See the last paragraph of this column for ideas about consultants.)

1. What are the values that we as a business cherish as the foundation of our business? If you have no company statement of values you might consider as a starting point the “Four Way Test” of Rotary International. It is in use worldwide and has been translated into more than 100 languages:

Of the things we think, say or do, is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? This could be used as a platform for tailoring a statement of values for your operations — even at a division or department level only.

2. What is the vision of the senior management team for the future of this business? How will you meet the challenges in the next decade? Employees and managers at every level need to be aware that their company is prepared to face the future. If leaders are not prepared to face problems that even a novice employee might be aware of, how can anyone have trust in the company? How do you communicate this vision? Eyeball to eyeball is always the best way to face a distrustful situation: Try small group meetings with senior managers sharing their views.

3. Can company officials be believed? In every study of leadership, employees are found to desire leaders in whom they can believe. Are promises kept? Are all company statements honest and not seen as grandiose public relations efforts?

Do managers seek to promote their own agendas, rather than crediting employees with quality ideas? Are managers infighting for their own recognition? No one trusts managers they see as only being out for themselves.

4. Management by walking around: Do the senior managers walk around? The TV show “Undercover Boss” on CBS might have questionable elements in its format, but it does show how much an executive can learn by getting out of the executive suite. It is likely that we all know (intuitively) what’s “right” in nearly every situation. Following this instinctive sense and ignoring any personal consequences will nearly always result in a more trusting environment. Look again at that Four Way Test above.

Turn now to some “nitty-gritty” workplace actions that will promote trust. Several human resources managers at a workshop recently provided these seeds for thought:

1. Hire and promote people who are capable of forming positive, trusting interpersonal relationships with those who report to them. If your current managers and supervisors do not meet this standard, workshop sessions with a qualified trainer/consultant could be needed.

2. Keep all employees truthfully informed. Provide as much information as you can comfortably divulge as soon as possible in any situation. In today’s e-mail, text-messaging and Twitter age, there is no excuse not to.

3. Ensure that supervisors will act with integrity — and keep commitments. Supervisors whose actions appear worthy of trust probably will receive fewer complaints.

4. Confront employee behavioral problems in a timely manner. Other employees will watch and trust you more.

5. Supervisors should never talk about employees who are not present or allow others to place blame, call names or point fingers. Employees learn to trust when they know that their names are not being taken in vain.

6. Listen carefully. Show sensitivity to the needs of all employees.

7. If you are a manager or a team leader, set high expectations. Act as if you believe staff members are capable of living up to them. (This is otherwise known as a delegation technique.)

Several readers have asked for help in obtaining additional information about topics presented here. So here are some ideas; I have no connection with any of them.

Dennis S. Reina and Michelle L. Reina are pioneering experts on workplace trust and the co-authors of “Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace” (Berrett-Koehler) and “Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace” (Berrett-Koehler).

They are co-founders of the Reina Trust Building Institute, a global enterprise specializing in measuring, developing and restoring workplace trust. Contact them at www.reinatrustbuilding.com.

Two colleagues at The Ken Blanchard Cos., Lisa Zigarmi and Chris Edmonds, have published a tweet book titled “Positivity at Work,” which presents 140 short, actionable quotes on how to create and manage well-being (trust) in the workplace. Zigarmi and Edmonds present five “pillars” of well-being that are essential for positive workplaces. Look them up now.

A firm that specializes in instruments for measuring trust levels is The Ryan Group Inc. in Dallas (www.ryangroupinc.com).

*   *   *

In the February issue, I offered ideas for avoiding obsolescence in management positions. I must have touched a nerve somewhere; in the three weeks after the distribution of that issue, several people contacted me with questions, comments and expressions of disgust. How dare I suggest that senior managers in major business firms might need to be updated? Oops. Just look in an honest mirror.

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 April 2012 issue.

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