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The Road to Recovery Four Crucial Steps to Regain Employees' Trust

June 7, 2010
Related Topics: Future Workplace, Strategic Planning, Workforce Planning, Featured Article

It’s been a long recession. Finally, it’s time for executives to think about investing again in the business; it’s time to rebuild.

Unfortunately, it’s also time for some of your best talent to head for the exits. Employees hang tight when times are tough. But don’t confuse stability with loyalty. Your people have been in survival mode. Now that the job market is picking up, they may be packing up, and that will make rebuilding tougher and more expensive.

If employees have lost faith during the recession—and they likely have if you’ve had layoffs, cutbacks, a hiring freeze or other measures that hurt—you’ve got to renew their trust if you want to renew the business. You can’t recover with employees still distracted and bruised by the struggles of the last two years. You can’t rebuild if employees are actively job hunting, looking for a fresh start.

You can provide a fresh start now, in your own company, with an active trust-building campaign to focus your workforce on the future, while acknowledging the pain of the past.

Trust is the fundamental human dynamic at work, implicitly, in every organization. When are employees most committed and productive? When they trust their bosses, top leadership, their teammates and the mission of the organization. When do they lose faith and check out? When a leader breaks a promise, refuses to be accountable or denies what everyone knows to be true. Distrustful employees watch the clock, look longingly at your competitors and withhold the energy you’re counting on. Ultimately, they cost you in lost productivity and turnover.

Want more engagement from your workforce? Consider the root cause of disengagement: distrust. Here are some steps you can take to build trust now.

1. Restate the strategic vision. Give people something to shoot for, to hope for. Describe how you’ll use the lessons of the last two years to make the future brighter. Survey results from the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer show that people need to hear consistent messaging three to five times to believe it’s true and trustworthy. At this delicate time, articulate the mission of the company in all of your communications. Employees want to see that leadership has a plan, a view beyond the horizon, and that the plan makes sense.

One of the best ways to build trust: Make yourself vulnerable. Encourage your people to ask questions and challenge the strategy. Appreciate their skepticism, and get it out on the table. Say, “I don’t know” if you don’t; get back to them when you do. Get people talking, thinking and buzzing again about what’s next.

Obviously, the mission should be familiar—it’s your ongoing purpose. As such, it should be broadly stated. Google’s employees know their company exists to organize the world’s information. Whatever strategic turns the company takes, whatever tactical moves they make, the core mission does not change. Executives who indulge in visionary “flavors of the month” invite distrust.

2. Make sure every employee understands his or her role in the strategic vision. After you get the leadership team on board with the rejuvenated mission, make sure the message cascades throughout the organization. Too often, middle management is a communication bottleneck, and employees on the front lines remain disillusioned. Require managers to meet not only with their teams but also with each individual employee to fuel their optimism for the future and make clear just how each job fits into the whole.

Be wary of the use of technology to engage employees. Performance management systems—after millions of dollars and several years of investment—have not yet proved to be the granular alignment tool many hoped for. In some cases, they simply allow managers to write the same old generic performance appraisals, just more quickly. Ask your leaders to have personal conversations with employees to tie individual roles to the overall mission.

3. Re-examine your rewards systems. Are they fair? When there’s a high-profile promotion or a quarterly cash award, do employees understand and respect the efforts that led to the recognition? Is your organization a meritocracy, where rewards are based on objective criteria tied to your strategic vision? Or do people shake their heads in disbelief—distrust—at the results of the latest popularity contest? Ask around. Do a little survey. If tenure and connections are the keys to advancement at your company, you’re breeding distrust. Make sure performance standards are clear, objective and enforced. What gets rewarded says a lot about what’s important in your organization. Make sure you’re sending the right message.

Relaunch your rewards programs if necessary. In a sense you may be relaunching the company, so it’s a natural time. Make sure every announcement of a promotion details the strategic value of the promoted leader’s contributions, in a clearly credible way.

4. Give your leadership development programs a dose of reality. Most leadership training is un-engaging and produces little absorption because it centers on hypotheticals, i.e. MBA case studies or a competitor scenarios. Leadership training is often not relevant because it’s focused on the model of the expert-manager, who deduces the right answers, learns the preferred competencies and role-plays the right situational actions.

The new consensus is that today leaders must be more of a dynamic facilitator, gathering insights and building coalitions from a broad range of stakeholders. Leadership development hasn’t kept pace with the realities facing today’s leaders. No leader can possess all the right answers in an environment where increasingly there is no right or wrong answer. The world is changing too quickly, the global economy is too complex, and information is expanding exponentially.

How about trusting your next leadership development cohort with a real-life business dilemma—a nagging decision to make that requires more judgment than certitude? Should the company expand to China? Is it time for outsourcing? Would an acquisition be a good move? Give them an assignment that will require them to practice facilitative leadership—to listen to a range of views, sift through business data quickly, communicate assertively and deal with fear. They’ll have real skin in the game, because they’re not only making a judgment, they’re choosing a path and leading the implementation with real consequences.

In some military training, soldiers use live ammunition and take real life-and-death risks. The result is that they learn quickly, develop immediate rapport and learn to trust one another. The same sort of rapid, deep learning can happen among your leaders. Asking leaders to demonstrate vulnerability while also unraveling their dilemmas with others will build trust faster and create unrivaled commitment.

Trust matters to consumers
A poll of 4,800 opinion leaders shows a company’s trustworthiness matters to consumers. How a company treats its employees was ranked in the top five categories influencing consumers’ decision to trust. Trust has taken on a new purpose-driven role in corporate communications, relationships and reputation. Employees and consumers alike are looking to the organization and its leaders to prove their commitment to sustained results derived in trust. Take Southwest Airlines for example: The air carrier has been on Forbes’ “Most Admired Companies” list for the past 13 years, through two U.S. recessions, and has retained major competitive gains.

Trust requires risk and vulnerability. It requires strategic discipline and objective standards. But it pays enormous dividends in the workplace. What is your company doing to earn employees’ trust—and engagement?

Michael Stewart is president and CEO of Work Effects, a human resources consulting firm specializing in validated assessments and tools for building trust and boosting performance in organizations. For more information, visit

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