For an organization to thrive, trust is essential. It keeps people engaged and makes them more likely to stay. It is equivalent to safety in a city. At times, people will stay in a city where they do not feel safe, usually due to not having a way to leave. However, while living there, they will not feel that it is the place they want to be. City leaders cannot assume that residents feel safe because they are staying. The same is true of people staying where they work. They might continue working for a time, but if they’re to stay for the long haul, they need to feel safe, supported, and cared for—and trust is a big factor in this.
Katherine A. Meese, PhD, and I have a book coming out this spring called The Human Margin: Building the Foundations of Trust. Why did we settle on that title? It is because the most current research shows that trust in organizations’ senior leadership has decreased considerably. The degree to which people trust senior leadership impacts the belief that the organization supports them and cares about their well-being. Trust is vital.
My belief is that people start out trusting their place of work and its leadership. If they did not have that trust, they would not have accepted the job. At the new employee orientation, they are excited to be part of the company. They hear about the mission and values. They hear about the history of the company. They feel good about their decision. There is a high level of trust. Their belief is they will work for a good leader, have the resources needed to do their job, receive the development needed to be successful, be communicated with on a regular basis, have good coworkers, and be recognized for good work. Most organizations want to provide those things.
Most people who move into supervisory roles come from within the organization; they are promoted internally. In workshops I ask, “Who is the newest person in a leadership role in the room?” Usually, it is someone with less than 90 days in the role, and often less than that. I ask them how they like their new role. It is quite common for the person to say they love it. Why? They feel good about the opportunity to be in a management position. They assume they will receive extensive development to prepare them in ways that will help them succeed in this new middle manager role. As the name suggests, middle managers are the lubricant between the senior leadership members and the frontline workforce. Organizations want to provide skill building and support to all those in management. Yet they realize this is the group that has a huge impact on the level of trust in an organization. After all, they are the people cascading information and explaining decisions to the front lines.
With all the good intentions, why is trust at a low point? Much of the reason is the impact of Covid. During the pandemic, senior leader visibility was impacted. There were major supply issues. Many organizations paid a lot of money to acquire safety guards. Then there was the issue of communication. The same confusion the public felt with Covid information was felt inside organizations. Education, celebrations, and town halls were canceled or reduced, and if they were held, it was done virtually. All of this led to trust being diminished. Plus, around 30 percent of the current workforce started during Covid, which meant that time to onboard and build trust was also reduced.
There is a long road to reconstruction ahead. Those companies that, due to financial challenges, have implemented a reduction in force will have an even harder time building trust. Here are some solutions for senior leaders to implement:
Run to measurement. The Human Margin lays out the top areas in which employee engagement is the lowest. Believing in and trusting senior leadership is a major factor in workplace trust. This then impacts employee engagement and the ability to retain talent. It is not because those at the top are not honest or trustworthy. They usually are. It is because, as mentioned above, Covid has had a major negative impact on trust.
Know that trust is an issue beyond the frontline workforce. Building trust with those in middle management is critical. Measure the number of leaders who have started in their role since March of 2020. How can you help them in their role?
Be careful not to overwhelm middle managers. Focus on one skill at a time. Chapter 6 in Rewiring Excellence: Hardwired to Rewired shares solutions to change how leaders are provided with skill building.
Be visible. Dr. Meese’s research showed repeatedly that frontline staff and middle managers want to see senior leaders in their areas. There is a belief that senior leaders may not understand what frontline staff face every day.
Communicate what is being heard and what actions are being taken. Use multiple communication methods. Less than 50 percent of frontline employees open the organizational newsletter or a note from the CEO.
Accept that it is a marathon, not a sprint. While Covid exacerbated the situation, trust in top leaders and organizations has been declining for a while. It will take a while to rebuild.
Feel good that people want to help. They want to make where they work a great place. They want to be listened to and utilized. This will help you greatly on your journey to rebuild trust.
You can download Rewiring Excellence: Hardwired to Rewired for free here and preorder The Human Margin: Building the Foundations of Trust at this link. As always, thank you for reading and for working to make your organization a place where leaders and employees want to be.