Mistakes that leaders make about trust at work.

 Mistakes that leaders make about trust at work.

Leadership & Management

Trust at work is crucial for business operations. So, why do so many organizations get it so wrong?

The concept of trust — particularly in the workplace — is deceptively simple.

At its core, trust at work is a measure of how well employees feel valued and understood by management in general and their managers specifically. When trust between employees and managers is high, this often indicates a healthy workplace culture, which leads to a host of other benefits from resilience and innovation to stock market success.

Yet, it’s something that even the most well-meaning leaders can get wrong.

Great Place To Work® has been measuring high-trust work culture for 30 years and has defined the elements of trust for employees (credibility, respect, and fairness). Over the years, our experts have learned a thing or two about the more misguided notions business leaders have about trust. Here are some of the most common mistakes.

1. Building trust is HR’s job.

Even the most hands-on leaders often fail to understand how central a role they play in building trust with employees. A CEO will make a speech about the importance of trust at work — and then pass the baton to the HR team when in fact, there is no baton to pass because the culture race is not a relay. Rather, everyone needs to be running together, cheering each other on, making sure everyone is keeping pace, and helping stragglers to catch up.

Leaders need to understand their important role in this and how their day-to-day actions influence company culture and trust. Some key questions they can ask themselves include:

  • How are people experiencing leadership?
  • How are we making decisions about the business?
  • How are we communicating our decisions?
  • How are we listening to feedback and incorporating it into future activities?

2. Trust can be built quickly.

Organizations often use surveys to answer the questions posed above. And then they mistakenly believe that by addressing any shortcomings trust at work will improve quickly, if not immediately. Trust however, is something that can only be built over time, through a continual process of delivering on promises again and again.

While the surveys and check-ins are vitally important, it’s the day-to-day work that makes the difference.

Leaders are often frustrated when results don’t change quickly and this can actually lead to an erosion of trust. Managing expectations is a critical element of building trust, and in our experience a realistic timetable for seeing meaningful movement is 18 to 24 months.

But that doesn’t mean you should wait to start building trust. It means you need to pay attention to your actions now, lay the groundwork and keep moving forward. The opportunity to build trust always starts now and the decisions people make today are critical to the workplace they will have in a few years.

3. Money can buy trust.

In their rush to make trust happen, many leaders mistakenly think they can buy trust with expensive perks and benefit programs. It doesn’t happen this way because employees typically separate the parts of their work experience that feel transactional. If an employee is dissatisfied with their work culture, their colleagues, or their leadership team, a lavish team celebration event or superb childcare benefit won’t tip the scales.

It's not that employee programs and benefits aren’t important — they are!

They just aren’t a substitute for the everyday behaviours, values, and decisions that serve to build trust at work. Focus on developing trustworthy behaviour, strong communication, and consistent, values-based decision making.

With these leadership principles as a base, perks and programs can be implemented that enhance and complement the culture and the values of the organization. Add the great parental leave program and ensure that employees with children are promoted fairly. Throw lavish celebration events and make sure everyone can attend and that recognition is widely dispersed.

4. Employee trust is the same as engagement or happiness.

When looking at data from the various Best Workplace lists that Great Place To Work® produces each year, it’s tempting to interpret it simply as a measure of employee engagement, or even individual happiness.

That’s a mistake.

Engagement or job satisfaction alone are poor indicators of the overall employee experience. They might be part of the picture, but all workers go through phases of engagement and disengagement, to say nothing of emotional peaks and valleys. Trust, on the other hand, is a consistent measurement despite the natural ups and downs. You can be having a really tough time with a work assignment or having trouble with a colleague but knowing you can trust your managers to help you through the struggles is what makes the difference.

It's this fundamental level of trust that Great Place To Work measures — and it’s trust that has a transformational business impact on retention, recruitment, and stock prices.

5. Employees don’t have to trust you to get their job done.

Does it really matter how employees feel?

Afterall, they have a job, they show up for work and they get paid. Shouldn’t these be sufficient motivation for employees to work hard, to meet expectations and serve customer needs?

They are not, and in fact our research consistently tells us that employee trust shows up in the quality of their work. Employees who experience trust at work also feel empowered by their organization and are more likely to innovate and go above and beyond for their organization. Great Place To Work research found that the biggest difference between typical workplaces vs. great workplaces is the willingness to give extra at work. Great workplaces enjoy 81% more discretionary effort, vs. the 55% at a typical workplace.

Employees also notice when the care and concern shown for customers is not typically extended to them.

It’s not uncommon to hear employees say, “We will do anything for our customers — but when we as employees need any sort of support, it’s a fight,”

The best companies know that employees deserve the same level of care and consideration.

6. It’s no big deal if some employee groups don’t trust you.

Without numbers, it’s easy to miss how some groups of employees feel left out at work. Frontline employees often have a worse experience than in-office workers and senior management — and the experience of culture can be deeply divided across an organization.If you work remotely, or you have flex hours you may not get to join a birthday celebration or join your colleagues for an impromptu lunch. If the work culture centres around fun in-office activities, those whose jobs require them to be offsite or customer-facing often miss out. And if opportunities to network with senior managers involve activities like golf and skiing, how do people who don’t participate in these sports feel? Workers who don’t participate or feel included find it harder to think of themselves as part of the whole.

And that sense of being an important part of the team is exactly what trust helps to build.

Frontline employees are brand ambassadors. Remote work and flexible hours are commonplace. And being inclusive and welcoming of people with different backgrounds and interests is essential. Don’t risk alienating key groups of employees because you didn’t make inclusivity a priority.

Trust at work doesn’t just happen. It’s built over time, through deliberate actions that signal to each and every employee they are valued. It’s showcased in everyday behaviours and cemented by values that are consistently practiced. The effort you make today will translate to a significant difference in both your people’s performance and your bottom line.

If you want to get clear insight on how employees are experiencing trust at work within your organization we are here to help. Reach out to us about how our survey and culture management platform can help you measure your team’s effectiveness.

Nancy Fonseca
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