You may not want to hear this, but your employees probably don’t trust you as much as they used to.
According to the Institute of Leadership and Management’s Trust in Leaders study, the level of trust employees have in their bosses has decreased by 8 per cent since 2011. The study, which asked 834 members to score their CEO out of 100 on seven dimensions of trust, found that faith in the leadership degrades as the organisation becomes larger, and that employees generally felt misunderstood.
On the surface this seems worrying, but it might not matter as much as it seems.
Yes, the notion of trust is certainly important for business: ‘trusted’ firms generally have stronger relationships with suppliers and customers, while employees who don’t trust their company are unlikely to be loyal or motivated.
As CEO it’s your job to set the example, but the truth is, you individually probably matter less to your employee’s daily motivations than you think - especially in a large organisation.
Think about what does motivate people. Pay raises and bonuses can buy a degree of retention, but not motivation. Job progression and purpose are clearly important, and organisations like communications outsourcer Moneypenny highlight the business benefit of making staff feel empowered.
But the evidence points distinctly to the fact that it’s their relationship with their line manager and immediate team that has the strongest impact on how people feel about work, not the CEO. You’re just a name that appears at the bottom of the annual report, presents the regional town hall or occasionally shares leadership tips in high-end management magazines.
As far as trust is concerned, employees will generally give you the benefit of the doubt until they’re proven wrong. However, once that happens – usually because you said one thing and did something else – it’s nearly impossible to restore.
CEOs shouldn’t really be asking whether they’re trusted in any case, says Robert Phillips, author of Trust Me, PR is Dead and former EMEA CEO at Edelman. Instead they should assess whether they are trustworthy, which he breaks down into four general traits: competence, benevolence, reliability and most importantly honesty.
"It's about actions, not words. That's a bit of a cliche, but ultimately, it's about standing naked, and being honest with people," says Phillips. "For many, the CEO mentality is still one that requires superhero capes... and that is so utterly inauthentic."
It’s an ego boost to say that you’ve personally gained the hearts and minds of your employees, or built individual, trusting relationships with everyone in your organisation. It certainly wouldn’t hurt the business either. But it’s unrealistic to think that it’s always possible, particularly if the company has more than 150 people.
It’s far more important to make sure that you act with integrity, install suitable team leaders who inspire their staff and build an organisation that treats people as individuals and lives up to its values. Do that and trust will follow.
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