What does trust look like in an organization? In some environments, like emergency services, employees’ lives may be at stake, and trust is evident in how they protect each other. But what about other work settings? What does it look like in an office? Or a production facility? For many organizations, it isn’t as easy to identify.
Each individual will have their own definition of trust, but we can identify some common themes. In a high trust environment, management is perceived as ethical and honest with clients and with staff. Management “walks the talk” and is careful to live up to promises, and do what they say they will do. Employees feel comfortable bringing concerns to management, and can expect that those concerns will be heard and addressed. And employees work together, supporting each other and sharing information.
But, how do you build trust? Is it a bunch of people enjoying a ropes course together? Is it off-site workshops where we all share our deepest secrets?
When looking for a way to build trust, it can seem like chasing a ghost. No fun program or outing will fix it. A new policy won’t fix it. But there are things a company can do to influence trust in the organization.
- Do what you say you are going to do. Review your policies – are there any that are written but not followed? Do you ever say: “that’s in our handbook, but nobody really follows it?” Or maybe the policy is followed, except for certain people who get away with not following it. Change the policy, get rid of it, or start implementing it consistently. Do you have any managers that tell employees one thing, but then do another? Do they promise training or resources that never materialize? Are promotions promised but never happen? This kind of ambiguity can derail trust quickly.
- Don’t bluff or sugar coat- be brave in giving bad news. Your employees are adults, and they can take bad news better than you think. It’s ok to say: “sales are down…this is why…and this is what we are going to do about it.” It can be hard for a CEO or President to be vulnerable that way, but it inspires trust from your staff. And it can inspire creativity and dedication from your staff which will help you through those rough times. Often if a company says “we need to cut costs,” the best cost saving ideas will come from employees.
- Hold all managers accountable for their own performance as leaders - When a bad manager is tolerated, it tells your staff that management is not to be trusted, and sends a poor message about company values. Invest in your managers with training, coaching, and performance discussions. A manager who is bullying, incompetent, micromanaging, etc. can cause significant damage to trust, morale, productivity, and retention.
- Use informal interaction between leadership & staff to build relationships. Trust is built over time, through real relationships. Look for opportunities for staff and leadership to interact in casual ways. This can be achieved through department meetings, but also look for less formal opportunities like company events and volunteering. If you have any team activities, either in-house or through community service opportunities, mix the teams across levels and across departments. When you are building playground equipment side by side with one of the senior leaders, that breaks down barriers. But don’t expect one activity or event to fix the organization. It takes frequent positive interactions to build real relationships.
- Communicate – When employees don’t know what’s going on, and don’t have a say in projects, initiatives, etc, how can they trust? This doesn’t mean that every employee has a say in every decision. It means communicating with your employees and getting their insights, so they can trust in the decision making process, and the people who are making the decisions.
- Stop micromanaging and start coaching – Trust goes both ways. When employees feel trusted, they will return that trust. Coach your employees in problem solving and decision making, and encourage them to take ownership of their role. This will mean they will occasionally make mistakes. That’s how people learn. But in teaching employees to solve problems themselves, you are growing future leaders, and building a culture of trust that goes both ways.
- Encourage employees to develop trust amongst themselves. In group settings, encourage employees to share their expertise, experiences, and insights with each other, in a supportive environment. Set expectations for the team, or ground rules, so people feel safe in sharing their ideas, and even mistakes, without fear of looking foolish or being ridiculed or judged.
Trust is a critical component of a healthy workplace. It can be damaged easily, and can take a long time to rebuild. But it can be rebuilt. One step at a time, even one conversation at a time, trust can grow.
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