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All About Trust

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - 08:21

Trust in the workplace is one concept with a direct relationship with your bottom line. By Chris Sheedy

A buzzword for success in business you're likely to hear more of in the next few years is 'trust'. Proponents argue that it may be the single most important factor within organisations today. And, since trust must be earned, the experts say it's high time that managers begin working on it.

Vanessa Hall, Founder and Director of consultancy and trust champion, entente, points out that trust has a direct and powerful relationship with an organisation's bottom line.

According to research carried out by Watson Wyatt (now Towers Wyatt) in the US, as well as further research conducted independently in Australia, companies with a high level of trust achieved shareholder returns three times that of companies that had a low level of trust.

Trust, of course, must be embedded in all levels of the business. Trust between board members is vital, as is trust between senior managers. Staff must feel they can trust their managers, and managers must trust staff to get the job done. Customers must trust the products the company is producing, and marketing messages must be trustworthy rather than misleading. It's a big call in the current environment as businesses still feel a hangover from the GFC, but that's exactly why it's so important.

"During the GFC, business owners and senior managers went to their employees and said, 'We want to work through this together so let's lighten the boat. How about you take some of your leave now? How about we do nine-day fortnights? How about we cut overtime expenditure?'," says Grant Sexton, CEO of Leadership Management Australasia, whose recent research has proven employees now value trust over every other management issue within organisations.

"They asked the crew to get on board and tough out the storm, and employees did that. People even agreed not to have pay rises for two or three years.

"Then the hurricane ended and in Australia and New Zealand we found it didn't really affect us that badly. We were back to smooth sailing and suddenly the employees woke up and said, 'Hang on, we got through the storm. Where's my pay rise? Where's my thanks for helping out? Where's my recognition?'.

"There was a huge amount of resentment and disillusionment. Employees felt the companies didn't care about them and there was no trust. 'We jumped on board when you said we could trust you, but you left us dangling'."

Earning trust

Managers must recognise that employees are individuals, Hall says. They have individual needs and expectations about how they should be treated, how much freedom they should be allowed, and how often their manager should check in with them.

"What managers often do is a one-size-fits-all management style, which, of course, doesn't really fit anybody," Hall says. "A lot of managers think they know exactly what their people need from them. That is a fatal mistake. Staff expectations come from things that you as a manager have perhaps never even considered.

"They could be expecting the same treatment a previous manager, at another organisation, offered them. So you've got someone who feels bruised and the trust starts to break down because they expected something that is not being delivered.

"So it is about managers recognising that trust must be earned individually. If you think you don't have time to do that, you'll create a lot more problems for yourself."

Specific to the GFC, Hall says that managers must accept that they have let people down. Sexton agrees, saying a vital first step is an open and honest admission of this fact.

"The first thing managers need to do is make a conscious effort to go to their employees and say, 'Thank you, and sorry we didn't thank you earlier. We thought the GFC was going to hurt us, we jumped on board together, your commitment is what saw us through. Now we want to re-earn your trust'," he says. "You'd be amazed at how powerful that admission can be."

Recognising contributions

Sexton says that a manager must show great support for two things: the contributions the person is making, and the person themself.

Recognising an employee's contribution involves asking what the person really needs to get the job done and providing them with the equipment, training and so on that is required.

Recognising the person, by contrast, is about demonstrating that the individual is important, that the organisation actually cares. It can be as simple as remembering their kids' birthdays and asking how their partner is going.

"What people seek at work has become complex and holistic," Sexton says. "They want to be in a place where they're doing something meaningful and be seen to be meaningful in their roles, but also important as an individual. The reality is about recognising people for who they are."

Hall recommends an initial starting place for cultivating trust can be achieved through making a small promise and being sure to keep it. Begin to prove to staff that you can be trusted. With ongoing reinforcement, you will succeed in winning their trust little by little.

"Show you're prepared to make changes," Hall says. "It takes consistent effort on the manager's part. But at the same time the manager needs to articulate what their expectations are of their staff.

"Trust is a two-way thing," she emphasises. "In order to build trust both parties must be clear about their expectations of each other. Trust is seen as a soft skill, but get it right and it has an enormous impact on the bottom line."