Workplace Trust Is Scarce: How To Build More of It


By Chip Joyce

“Trust is a great force multiplier” — Tom Ridge

During a break in our managerial workshop “How to Be an Ally with Employees”, we ask attendees to share stories about a challenging boss they’ve experienced, but share the story in a humorous way. We’ve had some truly funny stories shared by quite a few very talented story tellers. However, it is clear that the incidents were hurtful at the time they occurred.

Many of the attendees tell stories about one of their very first bosses. It’s critical to consider why that would occur.

One explanation, is that we tend to stop trusting managers (and organizations as a whole) after a couple of early-career betrayals. This would certainly limit our exposure to more disappointment. At the very least, we are leery to trust as time marches on, with good reason.

Most managers will tell me that their employees trust them — and some of them are visibly upset when I tell them to question that premise. “Why wouldn’t they trust me? I’ve always been truthful with them!” or “We can talk about anything—of course they trust me!” It is a difficult reality to embrace.

There are a lot of reasons why your employees may not trust you. Admittedly, most of the reasons have nothing to do with you, their present manager. The reasons they might not trust, could be related to past managers, or your manager or the manager two levels up, or what happened in the department on the other side of the building, or what happened in their parent’s career at the hand of a poor manager.

Our relationship with workplace trust is complicated. Your employees often have major trust issues before they’ve stepped through your door, and— with all due respect —you are naive, if you believe you’ll start with a clean slate.

Many managers don’t like the idea that they are not given the benefit of the doubt. They believe they deserve to be trusted unless they have broken break trust in some way. But that just isn’t the reality.

We often have to break down walls and rebuild.

A CEO told us that he was “betrayed” by his COO, who had helped him build the business for over a decade. The COO had resigned with two weeks’ notice. For whatever reason, he wanted to do something else, had been interviewing and ultimately accepted an offer. The CEO felt betrayed because the COO never let him know that he was restless and was seeking a new experience. I questioned if the CEO had explored with the COO as to why he’d never shared his thoughts. The CEO expressed that he had. The COO expressed, “I didn’t trust that you’d understand, I worried that you’d be angry, that you might simply fire me.”

That CEO assumed his COO trusted him, when in reality this hadn’t been confirmed.

Trust in the business world (as measured by the proportion of employees who say they have a “high level of trust in management and the organization” they work for) is near an all-time low. (The Alliance, Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh)

There is a trust deficit in the workplace. You, as a manager, need to realize that you must earn each employee’s trust. You need to demonstrate that you are in fact a counterexample to this widespread crisis of mistrust.

Here are a few ideas to explore:

1. Put trust on the table. Share a story about how a manager may have betrayed your trust. Describe your emotions at the time, how you handled or mishandled it and how it affected you. Acknowledge how it made you more wary of trusting managers, or whatever is true for you.

2. Discuss widespread mistrust in the workplace. Express that you take this very seriously because of the interference with not only the success of the business and careers, but also with relationship building among coworkers.

3. Explore experiences. Ask your employee about their own history with managers and whether they felt their trust had been betrayed. (Be sure to practice active listening skills). Accept what you hear as gospel and exercise empathy.

4. Acknowledge that trust is earned. Discuss that trust is built upon mutual plans together, with each side recognizing commitments to one another. Then follow with another plan, and another—with each completed plan layering a foundation of more trust.

5. Capture the dynamic. Structure these plans within Tours of Duty, as described in The Alliance.

Chip Joyce is the Co-Founder and CEO of Allied Talent. He brings the Alliance Framework to organizations worldwide.

Photo Credit: morgueFile

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