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Trust at work

The theme explored in this article is the importance of trust and the extent to which it exists between management and staff in the workplace.

Trust in business is a hot topic these days because of the number of high profile breaches of trust by leaders and leadership teams. This is not altogether surprising as breaches of trust are more likely to occur and to be exposed when economic conditions are challenging. In such an environment the temptation to favor the short term expedient or personal self interest over the morally correct course becomes too great a temptation for certain individuals or management teams.

Without some level of trust organizations would not be able to function. At a basic level we all depend on everybody else to do what is expected of them as part of the collective effort to serve the customer and meet owners/shareholders expectations. Few would dispute the importance of trust and how important it is for long term success.

Why then is establishing and maintaining trust such a struggle for many organizations ? The answer may lie in the multi dimension nature of trust, how long it takes to build and the fact that a single act can seriously damage trust, which once broken can take a long time to restore. Therefore prevention is better than cure.

In commercial organizations trust can be undermined because of an undue focus on the ‘bottom line ‘ motivated by market expectations and ‘greed’ by management teams and shareholders. In such an environment other goals such as adherence to a code of values (critical to trust) tend to be put under pressure as expediency to achieve short term profit targets become the only measure of success. One of the surest signs of trust issues in an organization is if there is a general perception that the organization does not live by its own stated values and mission statement, which of course are often given pride of place in the annual report of the enterprise. You will all have a view as to the extent to which there is trust between management and employees in the organizations in which you work.

One reason that trust issues can arise is a tendency by management to assume that they are trusted by the workforce, simply because they are in a position of trust. This can lead to complacency and a failure to recognize when trust is being undermined. Management may not be aware of the behaviors of the leadership team which are undermining trust or may not appreciate the impact on trust of certain actions, or indeed failure to act. Also, employees may fear consequences for ‘speaking up’ if there is not a culture which encourages and supports honest feedback – more likely to be the case when management are not trusted.

Ways in which trust can be undermined include the following :

– failure by management to honor commitments given
– disconnect between what is said and what is done
– lack of consistency /frequent changes of strategic direction
– failure to follow thru on initiatives or to deliver on timelines
– perceived unfairness in the general remuneration system
– disproportionate or hidden pay and benefits for leadership team
– lack of transparency or favoritism in promotions
– promotions/pay based exclusively on achieving narrow performance targets
– incompetent management leading to poor decision making
– procrastination and failure to address issues
– lack of open communication or meaningful engagement on key issues
– failure to sell reasons for tough decisions
– reluctance to trust and empower the work force (trust must given as well as earned)

Where there is a lack of trust in the workplace it promotes an ‘ everyman for himself ‘ mentality, in which necessary co-operation to achieve organizational objectives is undermined or lost and internal politics (‘playing the game’), becomes perceived as more important to personal advancement than performance. Those with information necessary for good decision making may hide or fail to share it or become disillusioned, leading to poor individual work performance. A ‘them and us’ relationship will exist not only between management and staff but between different areas, who protect local interests at the expense of organizational goals. There will a tendency to blame others rather than take personal responsibility for mistakes. The organizational grapevine will have more credibility than official communication channels.

High staff turnover is often a warning sign that there are trust issues in an organization.

While it is possible to talk in general terms about the extent to which trust exists between management and the work force, as well as between different areas, ultimately it comes down to whether one individual trusts another. Equally, there can be differences between the extent to which management in general are trusted and the situation at local level, between a particular manager and his subordinates.

If organizations are required to take tough decisions to restructure or downsize, very common in current economic conditions, it is best to assume that this will undermine trust between management and staff to a greater or lesser extent and that a programme of action to restore trust will be necessary.

While there are many aspects to building and sustaining high levels of trust in organizations it would be  mistake to regard trust as a complicated issue.  A culture in which there is an insistence on and reward for adhering to high standards of personal behavior will go a long way to ensuring that there is trust in the workplace.

Usually when we talk about trust we think about how much we trust others. When you are reflecting on issues highlighted above you also might also reflect on how trustworthy you are at work or beyond that in your social and personal life. In the final analysis trust is a matter of character and personal integrity.


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