Why your workers don't trust you - and what to do about it

Stop passing the buck and be more transparent. Lack of trust is bad for business.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 22 Sep 2016

Trust is phenomenally important in business. If your suppliers don’t trust you they will be unwilling to extend you credit. If your customers don’t trust you then they won’t open their wallets. If the government doesn’t trust your industry then you’re going to end up swimming in red tape. And if your employees don’t trust you then they won’t do what you need them to – and they won’t stick around long either.

It’s not controversial to say that businesses face a crisis in public trust at the moment – the man or woman in the street thinks companies are out to make an easy profit no matter what impact they have on people or the planet. No wonder the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump are finding themselves with many a sympathetic ear.

But companies also face an internal trust vacuum. A study by the Chartered Management Institute and leadership events company Top Banana published today lays bare the scale of the problem. While 72% of senior leaders think they’re highly trusted as a manager, just 36% of middle managers say they trust their business leader to a great extent.

Given that 85% of leaders agree trust is critical to business performance, this is a big problem and not one that’s easy to amend. In the words of Robert Phillips, former EMEA boss of Edelman, ‘Trust is not a function of PR. Trust is an outcome, not a message. It is deeply behavioural, complex and fragile. Trust is hard-fought, hard-earned and hard-won every day, by actions, not words.’

Read more: 'Mistrust of business is nothing new'

The good news is that tackling trust within your company is much more readily doable than trying to boost the general public’s jaundiced view. So here are a few thoughts on the actions you can take to rebuild trust within your organisation.

Take responsibility

As a leader it’s your job to take responsibility for things that go wrong, regardless of whether they are directly your fault. That doesn’t mean letting people get away with murder, but you have to recognise that failings within your remit are ultimately the result of your failure to hire the right people or direct them in the best way possible. You might think that passing the buck will save your skin, but the result will be that people trust you less and you will be less effective as a leader. At the same time, when things do go well, don’t hog all the credit.

Match your words with actions

There are few things more likely to damage others’ trust in you than over-promising. If you say you’re going to do something then do it, and if you can’t do something then don’t say you can. People won’t forget promises that you made.

Cut the bullshit

People aren’t stupid and they won’t believe you just because you’re in charge. If times are tough then be up front about it – don’t say you’re ‘reformulating the company’s resourcing allocation to align with difficult market conditions’ when you mean you’re laying hundreds of people off. Polishing the turd won’t make it any less pungent.

Be as transparent as possible

Clearly there are some bits of financial information that need to remain a secret, and you won’t be telling everybody on the shop floor if a big multinational has been on the phone to talk about an acquisition. But you should be as transparent as you possibly can about the state the company is in and the plans you have for the future. Almost two thirds (63%) of middle managers involved in the CMI report said they wanted more senior leaders to reveal their thinking on important issues. Leaving people in the dark will make them resent you.

Invite and listen to feedback

People aren’t going to trust you if you don’t care what they think. Just 9% of middle managers said they were given to chance to give feedback on information they had to share with their teams. If you seem like an aloof and detached leader passing down diktats from above with no interest in your juniors’ opinions then don’t expect them to have your back.

Share the wealth

‘We’re all in this together’ has become a term of sarcasm thanks to its relentless use in political circles since 2010. But demonstrating that you’re all in the same boat is a good way of building trust. To that end, linking your own rewards with those of everyone else in the organisation can pay off. That could be as simple as a company-wide bonus based on financial performance, or you might want to go further by awarding them shares in the business. That way, when you succeed, they succeed – and vice versa.


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