Trust in the workplace – seven steps to get it back

Business owners and managers need to focus on building trust with their staff to improve productivity and the bottom line, according to research from leadership training firm Forum.

Survey results showed a “trust gap” between leaders and employees, with employees rating the value of trust in the workplace twice as much as company leaders did.

The survey of nearly 1000 Australian and New Zealanders managers and employees in September found that less than half, 43.1%, of employees trusted their leaders to a great or very great extent.

It also found that 97% of employees and leaders recognised that having a leader they can trust is very important.

Forum Asia-Pacific managing director Cynthia Stuckey told SmartCompany that trust in the workplace is defined as “having a boss that is transparent, who tells the truth, who is consistent with their messages”.

“They (employees) want to see bosses walk the talk, and see that their decisions are reflected in their actions, dollars and their time,” Stuckey says.

“They don’t want to see inconsistencies.”

Stuckey says trust in leadership matters to business as almost every performance indicator was influenced by trust in the workplace, from the number of staff sick days to retention rates and revenue.

“Trust is a leading indicator of employee engagement, and it is one of the major business success indicators. This came out of every company, it didn’t matter if they were big, small or in between.”

Bosses need to assess how they are fostering a culture of trust in the workplace, she says.

“In a high performing environment, you have to take time to sit back and view your values and strategies and have self-reflection.

“As a boss you have to be open to feedback and to adjust your approach.”

A key step for bosses is to be clear and open with staff regarding how you will use information they provide in meetings. Stuckey says to be clear if a meeting is to simply solicit ideas for review, or if their ideas will be directly placed into action.

In cases where you can’t reveal information to your team, say why, so they understand the implications, rather than feeling they are being kept in the dark.

“People want to be heard,” she says.

“You have to explain whether they have decision rights, so that they have clarity on what they are being spoken to for, and how you will use that information.”

Based on the survey findings, Forum created these top tips for leaders wishing to instil greater trust in their teams:

1.        Act with integrity

Being open and transparent is one of the most important traits a good leader could have. One of the major complaints heard from employees was a lack of transparency and/or lying. An example given was of a leader advising two employees that they were being developed for the same position. This not only shows a disregard for the individuals concerned, but also shows a naivety in thinking that employees don’t speak to each other. If employees feel they are being deceived, they are likely to lose faith in the company and ultimately become less productive.

2.        Listen and demonstrate care

Poor communication and interpersonal skills was another common complaint. Not listening to employees and those working closest to the customer makes them feel unvalued. Leaders should never underestimate the insight that can be offered by employees who actually interact with customers.

3.        “Walk the Talk”

Leaders should exhibit the behaviour and attitude they expect from their employees. Sixth on the list of employee annoyances was of leaders asking employees to do things that they themselves won’t do. Leaders shouldn’t expect employees to work late or do unpleasant tasks if they regularly leave on time and consistently delegate all the less-desirable tasks to other people.

4.        Demonstrate trust and empowerment

Empowering staff doesn’t necessarily mean giving them more authority, but rather making them feel strongly and positively about the organisation by not undermining them. One example that can make employees feel undermined is when leaders complain about other team members. While the leader may think that they are confiding in an employee and building a rapport with them, in reality the employee is just wondering whether the leader talks about them in the same way. Trust should be demonstrated not through negativity but through positive enforcement.

5.        Encourage/recognise hard work

Recognition is a vital part of building trust and respect. Employees told Forum that leaders consistently took praise for employees’ work and let their staff take the blame for their mistakes. The survey showed that only 2.3% of employees felt their leaders always acknowledged their own mistakes. If an employee isn’t recognised for their input, they won’t see their progression path and will have no reason to stay.

6.        Provide clear and consistent messages/vision

Being inconsistent was the most quoted complaint from employees. Any lack of consistency between what was said and what was done will quickly lead to employee disengagement. One example provided was when leaders talk about team and participation but lead in a directive, hierarchical style.

7.        Give constructive feedback/coaching

Coaching must not be seen as a one-way street. It means not only providing feedback (both good and bad), but also following through on commitments and holding both parties responsible for any necessary improvements or changes.


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