The dirty dozen – 12 ways to destroy trust inside organisations
One of the hot topics I’m looking forward to hearing more and thinking more about at Melcrum’s SCM Summit in London next week (14 & 15 October) is the tricky challenge of (re)building trust with employees, particularly in an industry like financial services.
There are sessions and workshops from Black Belt trainer Sally Hinder and Leanne Carmody of ING that touch on this topic – both of which will be on my must-attend list. And, if not made overt, it’s a subject that’s bound to be lurking just below the surface during many of the conference sessions.
One thing that is true about trust is that it takes years to create, yet it can be destroyed in a matter of seconds.
There are, of course, numerous ways to build and demolish trust inside organisations, but here’s a basic list I’ve compiled of some of the things, large and small, that are guaranteed to do the latter…
1. Whispers in the powder room
Some situations are so personal, painful or plain embarrassing that it’s easier to turn a blind eye and just pretend they don’t exist. I’ve experienced this sort of collective censorship at board level when a senior employee has been up to no good. Although the top team won’t face the music, be sure that everyone else in the organisation is likely to be whispering and chattering about it behind closed doors. Sensitive issues sometimes need to be aired in the open and ‘dirty washing’ acknowledged or discussed. Concealment is rarely a good option.
2. Ivory tower syndrome
This one is best summed up by a quote from Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon – “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an effective manager or leader who doesn’t spend some of their time down in the trenches…If they don’t do that they get out of touch with reality, and their whole thought and management process becomes abstract and disconnected.” In short, get out of your plush office, get back to the floor and reconnect with your people.
3. Terminal inconsistency
Whether it’s mixed messages or variable standards, being inconsistent is one of the fastest destroyers of trust. Mixed messages can and do occur anywhere in an organisation, from the top team down. The other thing to watch out for is selective messaging – where a senior leader tells one group one thing, and another something contradictory. The other big impact is around inconsistent standards and favouritism. Employees keep score. They notice who gets promoted, who gets away with bending the rules (and who doesn’t) and who get the palatial office suite. People expect a level playing field and the game of trust inevitably suffers when they the pitch has numerous bumps on it.
4. Misplaced benevolence
Most managers knows they’ve got to do something about the employee who cheats, steals or harasses fellow workers. But dodgy behaviour is often more subtle than this. Consider incompetence. I’m sure we can all think of examples of employees who are clearly crap at their jobs, but who seem to be protected and sheltered from criticism. Trust cannot thrive in such an environment. These people are surrounded by a cloud of negativity and drag down those around them.
5. Failure to trust others
Trust is a two-way street. You cannot expect employees to trust you if you don’t demonstrate that you trust them and others. Empowerment is more than a buzzword.
6. False feedback
We know that honesty drives trust, yet all too often you find managers who give ‘soft’ feedback or downright lies when it comes to performance appraisal. I’ve seen time and again how people have had to be let go due to poor performance only to turn around and accuse the organisation of wrongful dismissal based on apparently “positive” annual feedback. Even if you avoid this, organisations are leaky as sieves and word gets around the grapevine like wildfire.
7. Walk/talk mismatch
Leaders, managers, colleagues and organisations who say one thing and do something else. A guaranteed trust killer.
Issue dodging is rife. In a number of organisations I’ve worked in we’ve had intranet-based question and answer systems – where employees can ‘ask the boss’ whatever is on their mind by submitting a question online. Every now and again there was an answer on there which somehow managed to find its way through which was so clearly a cop-out – a bunch of weasel words designed to dodge the true issue. As communicators we have a duty for fight for these issues – to make sure they are aired, tackled and dealt with honestly.
9. Inaction (real or perceived)
There’s perhaps nothing worse than the organisation that asks employees for input, ideas, feedback, publishes the findings of the employee survey and then seems to take virtually no action as a result. Not acting on what your employees are telling you destroys trust fast.
10. Lack of sensitivity
Communicating tough messages without sensitivity is guaranteed to break down trust. Remember David Brent’s bungled announcement about the closure of one of Wernham Hogg’s offices?!
11. Rumours in a vacuum
Typically during times of change you will see lots of clandestine meetings and diary appointments marked ‘private’. Employees aren’t daft – they will know that something interesting is going on and, if you don’t come clean quickly, they will start guessing at it…
12. Consistent corporate underperformance
Any company that regularly fails to meet expectations – either internally or externally – will see trust eroded. Trust often takes a battering in a recession, but the key is to set realistic expectations and to be honest about performance to all audiences.
What would you add to the list? Do let me know your thoughts….