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Restoring Workplace Trust

As trust is based on actions not words, our gut-level understanding of actual conduct and deeds determines who we conclude is trustworthy and not.

May 6, 2013
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Related Topics: Organizational Structure, Corporate Culture, Business Etiquette, Values, Motivating Employees
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We've been spending time with senior executives and other business leaders talking to and surveying them about issues in their workplaces.

Others have identified and analyzed this same issue. A common concern is that distrust of organizations and leadership is high. Many point to the turbulence of the past several years and the impact it has had on their employees. They want to know how to fix that. Based on our work, restoring workplace trust requires that three questions be answered: What is trust; why is it important; and how do organizations build it. Interestingly, few of the responses indicated that our economic crises and their aftershocks were the actual cause of rising distrust.

First, our research showed that these are the questions that employees ask when defining and measuring trust: 1) Do you do what you say you'll do and what we rely upon; 2) Do you tell us the truth and admit when you make mistakes or when something changes; 3) Do you listen in good faith to our concerns or ideas and let us know how they will be handled.

Each of these involves basic standards of action and behavior. They don't call for perfection; they call for honesty and integrity in their most basic forms. With standards so clear, why is it that trust is a problem when organizations say they are so committed to trust as a core value?

A likely answer is that many leaders don't see trustworthy dealings as a critical, non-negotiable element of their operations. Instead, they see trust as part of a communications strategy for employees or their public not as an operational necessity. Organizational communications are necessary and critical; alone, they are not sufficient to change how people behave or what people believe.

A key indicator supporting this view is that unlike other core commitments to sales, global growth or quality, trust is often identified as an aspirational but vague operating ingredient. It's not vital, so it's defined loosely.

The underlying assumption is that saying that trust is important is all that matters. However, as trust is based on actions not words, our gut-level understanding of actual conduct and deeds determines who we conclude is trustworthy and not.

If many organizations could consistently thrive and grow without needing to build and maintain trust, they would. In fact, many can and have for a time. But when there is a crisis—a major product defect, a safety catastrophe that harmed the public, or a catastrophic financial collapse—the retrospective analysis almost always shows that some or all of the elements of trust identified above were breached along the way. That's when the need to build trust hits the organizational radar screen.

Ultimately, system-wide trust improves results and helps avert calamities. If we looked at the behaviors which build trust as the foundation of prudent risk management and stewardship of organizational assets, quality, and brand reputation, we'd give its definition and management the behavioral standards and leadership accountability it warrants.

In a future article, I'll summarize our thoughts as to how trust should be built in terms of daily behavior and maintained by leaders and team members. But recognizing the business and operational definitions and need for trust must come first for these standards to have any long term, sustained impact.

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