You hear plenty of talk in business of productivity, innovation and engagement. You hear far less about something fundamental that has huge implications for all three of those things: trust.
A loss of trust can be hard to detect and harder to suppress. Trust problems often go undiagnosed because their symptoms are mistaken for the underlying cause. But when trust is in short supply, the health of a business can rapidly deteriorate. If staff don’t trust their superiors, they’ll work only half-heartedly towards the goals they set, and question the direction of the company. If senior team members don’t trust those beneath them, they can fall into the trap of micro-management or fail to use their talent in the most efficient way. If staff don’t trust each other, then effective cooperation becomes rare, and labour cannot be divided in the most streamlined way.
Falling trust is rarely isolated to one level of the business. Like an epidemic, it starts to permeate the entire business and its negative effects accumulate. It isn’t long before output starts to fall, new ideas are in short supply and the workforce is chronically disengaged, cynical and unmotivated. A 20-year period of research into employee engagement by the Great Places to Work Institute concluded that high levels of trust between managers and employees define the best workplaces, and drive overall company performance revenue.
Trust weakens as you look higher up the chain. Staff members might trust their line manager but feel more ambivalent about the CEO, for example. What this means is that good leadership at the highest level must be underpinned by empathy and a wider understanding of what is taking place in the company. This requires a dialogue between the senior leaders and the staff beneath them. For senior leaders, displaying vulnerability by exposing themselves to feedback or even criticism is a powerful way of building trust. Communication of all kinds, at all areas of a business, is highly effective in building trust because it allows individuals to gain a deeper sense of how their colleagues work.
But underpinning both a willingness to hear feedback and a policy of open communication is the most essential factor in building trust in an organization. Transparency allows others to see behind the curtain and understand the mechanisms and processes that drive certain outcomes. Transparency doesn’t have to be radical. Businesses don’t have to risk exposing themselves and losing their competitive advantage or risk confidential information becoming widely known. But a degree of transparency, by individual members of the workforce as well as managers and senior members of staff, is crucial to showing others how you work and what your intentions are.
Lastly, you cannot expect to be trusted if you don’t trust others. This is especially relevant for senior managers, who most signal consistently to their employees that they have faith in them. Studies show that employees who are less trusted by their manager put in less effort, get less done, and are more likely to leave. The opposite is also true.
What’s clear is that businesses that don’t consider trust to be important suffer, and believe me, restoring trust once it’s lost is far harder than maintaining it in the first place.