Do your employees trust one another?
There’s a lot of distrust in workplaces and, justified or not, it’s performance poison.

Untrustworthy behaviour at work can destroy organisations. It can be a spectacular crash and burn demise, such as a high profile embezzlement or scandal. More likely though, it’ll be a slow and painful erosion of performance as staff clash and leave or worse, stay and don’t put in their best effort.

We all know the significance of trust in relationships and yet research shows there’s a problem in workplaces.

At least one in every three of your employees are looking suspiciously at those around them, according to recent research commissioned by SEEK, which surveys 4,000 New Zealanders that are representative of the workforce each year.

They don’t trust everyone they work with. And that’s a management problem.

If the lack of trust is justified because, for example, someone’s got their hand in the till, obviously speedy action is demanded. But what if the reason is less obvious?

Asked why they didn’t trust all of their colleagues, most of those surveyed put it down to either behaviour (workmates talking negatively about each other) or culture (where secrecy, favouritism and strategic game-playing is rife).

Why worry?

These issues can take a toll on performance because trust is a building block for any successful organisation, according to a paper published by the UK’s Institute of Business Ethics (IBE).

An organisation’s reputation for trustworthiness is founded on “a robust ethical culture, supported by leaders, systems and policies that are designed to nurture employees’ trustworthiness and trusting relations at work”, the paper says.

It’s a “formidable challenge” says the report, Building and restoring organisational trust, but “understanding and managing trust – how it is built, supported and recovered – is a critical competency for any organisation, and particularly for those that take their ethical values and commitments seriously”.

But there’s also a “powerful” business case for building trust. Research has proven “the positive impact of trust on employee attitudes and behaviours, group functioning and levels of organisational performance”, the report notes.

“In short, trust-based business costs less and is more productive. Additionally, a strong reputation for trustworthiness… can provide sustainable competitive advantage because it enables the organisation to attract and retain top talent, establish valuable business partnerships and retain a loyal customer base.”

How do you fix broken trust?

Trust and mutual respect between senior executives and employees are at the heart of what defines a great place to work, writes management guru Manfred Kets de Vries in a paper he co-authored, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

A good start, he recommends, is to take a look at the organisation’s senior executives because of the effect their management style has on staff.

Leadership training and feedback sessions can help and it’s important that this training filters down to all levels of the organisation. “Effective leaders recognise that employees need support when they are in the process of reinventing the organisation,” he writes.

Hiring practises and performance management can also help head off issues with trust, says Emmanuel Josserand, professor of management at UTS Business School and director of the Centre for Management and Organisation Studies.

Checking whether a job candidate’s values are a good fit with the company’s values is an important start, he says.

And their values, including whether or not they’re ethical, may be as important or more important than how well qualified they are for the job. “They may be the best expert, but they might not fit,” he says.

Of course, what’s opportunistic and unethical behaviour in one company, may be highly sought after in another, Josserand acknowledges. But the company itself may also be giving mixed signals to employees.

“Very often there is a contradiction in incentives,” he says. For example, in the financial markets, there’s a contradiction between a code of ethical conduct that is loosely enforced and key performance indicators measured in billions of dollars.

“Even if you said the ethical element is a prerequisite, there will be people who go for the financial incentive.

Overcoming this apparent contradiction takes strong and consistent leadership.

“For management, it means courageous and authentic leadership so people can role model their leaders. And it might mean sometimes making choices that are not optimal in the short-term for economic reasons, but that are the best in terms of creating that trust,” says Josserand.

“For example, it might mean that you have to let someone go who’s a great contributor financially, but who doesn’t respect others and who, in the long-term, can be negative for the organisation.”

7 tips to build organisational trust

Unambiguous two-way communication and leading by example are two of the most important features for building trust, agrees Fiona Lang, Manager of HR and Finance at Full Circle Feedback.

“This is where we’re at, this is what we’re doing, this is where we’re going and why – what do you think? Ask for feedback and get their buy-in, so you’re working together,” she says.

“When staff realise you’re all working together, they say, ‘Okay, I can see they’re genuine about this and this is the benefit for me’.

“If you remove the ‘us and them’ and put in ‘together’ the trust comes and then you’re working in the same direction,” she says.

Lang’s seven tips to help you build trust in an organisation are:

  1. Hire the people who fit your values.

  2. Develop interpersonal skills in both employees and leaders.

  3. Be truthful and honest with staff.

  4. Ensure leaders are competent and act with integrity to provide a good example.

  5. Deal with disruptive employee behaviour quickly.

  6. Protect employees’ interests by dealing with gossip.

Do your employees trust one another? infographic