When I look back at my leadership successes and challenges from the past year, one of the key concepts that had a strong presence in my day-to-day activities and that I learned a lot about/from was “building trust with employees”.
It can take one sentence, one conversation or one seemingly innocent action to completely lose the trust of your employees or colleagues. Conversely, it will take multiple conversations, consistent actions and time (and more time), to build the trust of your employees and colleagues.
When it comes to building this bond, there is no magic bullet, no special pill and no one week contest.
A talented coworker of mine recently wrote her Master’s Thesis on “Improving trust between executives and employees”. She shared that for subsequent years, employee engagement surveys have shown a downward trend in “trust in senior leadership”. In addition, there is a direct correlation to a company’s performance and financial success and the engagement of its employees, so organizations must take this issue very seriously. She also agreed, considering her extensive research, that building trust is not an easy affair.
How the heck do you build trust with your employees while working in environments with lots of change, surprises, acquisitions, budget cuts and more? This blog post will focus on 5 best practices that I learned (and most experts agree with) to build trust with your employees.
1) Must be deliberate
Like choosing to lose weight, or not smoking, the decision to build a climate of trust must be deliberate. It will not happen on its own.
The best place to start is by assessing the current state of engagement on your team through surveys, skip levels, direct observation or other feedback gathering techniques. Through this process you can identify the key “detractors” and “contributors” of trust and know where to focus your attention. Once you have identified the areas of focus, create your plan of attack and then hold yourself and your teams’ accountable for plan execution.
2) The department leader sets the tone
When I interview candidates for jobs at my firm, I am often asked this question, “what is the culture at your company”. My standard, honest reply is that it varies and depends on the department leader. As I look cross-functionally, the environment and tone varies from sales, to marketing to support etc.
Trust building starts with the department leader and then should cascade through the levels and teams.
It is common that some of the trust issues are occurring within management ranks, not just with your employees on the front line.. for example, the managers may not fully trust the directors or the directors may not fully trust their VP. I believe that you need to fix the management trust issues, before you can address issues across the larger team.
3) Trust is about authenticity
Acting as if you are “in management” will get you no-where. Speak and act in a way that is genuine, authentic and is comfortable. Share stories from your past experiences. Laugh when you think things are funny. Swear occasionally- if that is something that makes you, you.
You can be a very effective leader, while also being true to you, your values and interests. In fact, if you find that you have to make significant changes to fit into your department or company culture, you may be in the wrong job.
This sounds a little bit Dr. Phil-ish, but most of the trust building papers and books talk about “being vulnerable”. If a leader discloses personal things (appropriate ones), then, in turn, employees and colleagues will feel more comfortable disclosing, and the mutual disclosure builds trust. I tested this in 2012, and it does work. I am not someone who is comfortable telling personal stories (I always wonder whether they are too boring), but I pushed myself to practice this year and it was a great learning experience.
4) Trust takes time and more time
At the beginning of 2012, our company purchased one of our largest competitors and my department, technical support, close to doubled in size. One thing I heard a lot about and observed in the early stages was that most of the acquired employees had loyalty and trust to/with their prior company, but as of day one with our company, the trust meter was at zero, or even negative numbers.
I learned that every action or decision after “day 1” could either work to build their trust or detract from their trust. The fact that our acquisition, like most acquisitions, resulted in some employee layoffs, added negative fuel to the fire.
I learned a lot from overseeing the integration activities, but from a trust building perspective, the most important takeaway was that trust is built over time, and not with words, but with consistent actions. You must say what you mean, with authenticity, and then deliver on your commitments time and time and time again. If you keep doing this, trust will come.
5) Communication is the best tool for building trust
It is very simple.. I want to know what happened in the past, what is going on today and what is going to go on in the future. I also want to know why it is happening, who made the decision and how it impacts me. When possible or appropriate, I want to either provide input into or make some of the decisions. (I also tend to be very nosey and want to know all of the same things about the rest of the departments across my company.)
Many other employees are like me and the best way to address our incessant curiosity is by direct communication. The communication does not have to be fancy, but it does need to be timely, relevant, complete and exclude “blah blah blah” language.
Like the act of building trust, communicating with our employees must be a deliberate act. Leaders set the tone and must demonstrate that it’s a priority. Thousands of books have been written on communication best practices, but when in doubt start with some of the basics: email, verbal and face to face.
Simply, you can not build trust without communication.