Why trust matters

– and how HR can help their leaders to build it

Research out this week from Edelman shows that trust between organisations and their employees has plummeted to an all-time low. The company’s annual Trust Barometer shows that one in three people don’t trust their employer – with trust between ‘rank and file’ staff and top management at particularly worrying levels.

Lack of trust not only affects productivity, engagement and motivation – it can also have a huge impact on the company’s brand and reputation overall. Workers who have a poor view of the organisation they work for are highly likely to talk negatively about the business. Their views will have credibility with customers, clients and prospective employees – who as a result will be less inclined to deal with or want to work for the company.

The research shows that one of the most important factors influencing whether employees talk positively about their organisation is trust in the CEO. Building this can be a real challenge. CEOs are often ‘distant’ from the wider workforce and it’s easy for a ‘them and us’ culture to emerge. An article in HR magazine suggests this is in fact consistent with what we are seeing in wider society, where there is a growing trust divide between the ‘elites’ in authority and the general public.

Helping leaders to understand the importance of trust, is an area where HR can play a significant role, both in terms of the policies and initiatives it develops and the support it can give the CEO in building the right culture. The effort in starting at the top is worth it. According to Paul Zak, trust is contagious. In his TED talk, Trust, Morality – and Oxytocin? he says that by demonstrating trust, those we trust become both more  trustworthy, and trusting.

Here are five questions HR can encourage the CEO and senior leadership team to reflect on:

1. How well do we communicate with our people?

Employees are more likely to trust the CEO if they feel he or she has a clear and inspiring vision for the business. Leaders need to make sure they are telling compelling stories about where the organisation is headed and exactly how employees can contribute to its success on a regular basis. It’s also important for the CEO to be consistent in the way they handle communication internally and externally. If employees see their leader being charming and charismatic with clients and stakeholders – but unapproachable and morose with staff – trust will be irrevocably damaged.

2. Are we authentic and approachable?

Building trust with employees is never going to happen if the CEO is locked away in a gilded tower. Senior leaders need to be highly visible in the business on a day-to-day basis, getting to know people, having watering hole conversations as well as formal meetings and developing a real understanding of the challenges employees face. It’s about being prepared to show a ‘human’ side, being willing to show vulnerability and not coming across as someone who thinks they have all the answers. Staff are much more likely to have trust in their senior leaders if they can see them as ‘real’ people who are willing to engage in debate about how work happens.

3. Is our stance on ethical and societal issues clear?

In the Edelman survey, 8 out of 10 people said they actively wanted their CEO to have something to say about, and a meaningful involvement in, societal issues. This is particularly important for Generation Y employees, who rank issues such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) highly when it comes to choosing a company to work for. Two thirds of employees, however, felt their CEOs were too focused on short-term financial results. CEOs need to find ways of demonstrating ethical business practice, showing how the business is a positive force for good and leading by example when it comes to involvement in CSR initiatives.

4. Are staff comfortable enough to challenge?

Trust in leaders will be low if employees are frightened that speaking out or showing dissent will have career-limiting consequences. Blame cultures, where mistakes are not tolerated, are also not conducive to building trust. Leaders need to make it comfortable for employees to voice their views and challenge the status quo where they feel it’s necessary. This isn’t just about saying, “my door is always open,” it’s about actively encouraging people to speak up and meeting challenges with curiosity rather than defensiveness. Helping people learn from mistakes, rather than bawling them out for getting it wrong, will also encourage people to push the boundaries, innovate and develop new skills which will take the business forward.

5. Are we demonstrating care and compassion for our employees?

Employees need to feel like they’re more than just numbers on a spreadsheet. They need to feel their leader cares about the lives of the people he or she works with and has considered what impact their decisions or actions will have on them. Yes, of course there are commercial realities and often difficult decisions have to be made. But, the best organisations foster trust and cooperation because their leaders draw them into what Simon Sinek calls a circle of trust. If leaders are able to demonstrate empathy and compassion, employees are much more likely to trust them and support whatever changes they are being asked to make.

One question to ask yourself this week: What are levels of trust like in our organisation? What practical initiatives can we put in place to improve levels of trust between the workforce and the senior leadership team.

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