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Trust is a Critical Element in the Workplace

By Mary Kelly, PhD

Trust is a critical element in the workplace. People have to trust each other on both big and small issues. Seemingly harmless requests or actions that undermine trust can have big consequences.

Why Trust at Work Matters

Why does it matter if employees trust their managers? When people don’t trust their leaders, they are much more likely to leave their positions if the option is available to them. If you are in a leadership position and have a high rate of turnover among employees, one of the issues at play may be a lack of trust.

What undermines trust?

  1. Lack of Honesty

Most employees consider leaders lying to their people to be impossible to recover from. Nothing destroys the faith and confidence of people working in an organization faster than finding out their direct supervisor lied to them. It does not have to be a big lie. A small, seemingly inconsequential lie can have a huge impact on an employee’s level of trust in a leader. If their leader is willing to lie to them about little things of little consequence, what prevents them from lying to them about matters of real importance?

  1. Lying by Omission

Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth seems like a good idea. So why is it so hard for leaders in organizations to tell the whole truth? Oftentimes, it is not that easy. Leaders often only have partial information themselves, or they provide information that is later contradicted by updated information. Therefore, many leaders are in the habit of not conveying information until it can be verified multiple times. The problem with that delay is it creates uncertainty for the other team members. Every time employees feel uncertain about their future with the company, product issues, or personnel changes, it causes a loss of productivity and feeds mistrust.

Some leaders are also slow to realize that employees often find information faster than the hierarchy can promulgate it. This leaves leaders in the unenviable position of not sharing official information because they do not have it. By the time a leader lets people know what he knows, they have already received that information, and more.

Certain levels of leadership may also be restricted with regards to how much information they are allowed to provide their employees. In those instances, they need to be honest and let their employees know what they can provide and what they cannot provide. Employees will understand if the circumstances are adequately communicated.

  1. Lacking Clear Communication

Imagine you are working at a job you love, in an organization you enjoy, for a manager you like. You have the education, technical knowledge, and real life experience that allow you to excel at this job. You have years of experience working as a successful manager, and you have an excellent reputation as a forward-thinking leader in both your organization and your industry. Then, you get a new supervisor.

Your new boss does not know you or anyone else. He asks lots of questions every time you make a decision. He wants to know details that are far below his pay grade, requiring you to spend a substantial amount of time responding to his seemingly endless queries for information.

You move some people around projects, and your new boss wants to know why. You let one employee leave early on Monday because they worked late last week, and your new boss wants to know why. It feels as if every decision you make is being questioned. You feel your authority is being undermined and your direct reports have started to challenge your decisions. You suddenly believe your boss does not trust you to run your team.

You stop functioning as an effective leader. You think, “If my manager doesn’t trust me, why should I try?” “If everything I do is being questioned, it’s easier to not do anything.” You start to lose confidence and it feels like you cannot do anything right. You feel micromanaged to the point where you are afraid to make decisions. You stop trying.

Now, look at this scenario from the boss’ perspective.

You have just taken on a new, high profile job. You want to learn everything you can about the people and the systems you have in place. You ask a lot of questions and you listen carefully to the answers.

The more you show interest in your direct reports and what they do, however, the more they seem to push back and resist you as their new manager. You wonder if maybe they do not like you. You wonder if they do not trust or respect you. You wonder if their loyalty to the old boss is so strong they will never accept you or the changes you want to make in their department. You wonder whether or not they are going to get onboard with your vision. You worry that, if things do not improve, you might have to let some people go.

This example involves two great workers with aligned visions and a shared work ethic. Yet, a lack of direct, honest, and timely communication among both team members leads to micro-management and a massive breakdown of trust.

Creating trust at work is tough. Keeping it is even more difficult. Leaders and managers have to be aware of how they are perceived, and how their words, actions, and polices are interpreted. When in doubt, over communicate with the team and keep lines of information open.

Mary Kelly, PhD, retired from the Navy as a Commander. She is the President of Productive Leaders, a firm dedicated to improving profit growth. She can be reached at Mary@ProductiveLeaders.com.