Building Trust in the Workplace:
A Two Way Street to Success
My parents gave me only one piece of advice on the way to my first day of kindergarten, back in the early 1960’s in New Jersey:
“Remember,” they said, “to have a friend you’ve got to be a friend.”
This was the only advice they gave me that day – perhaps because I was left back a year in pre-school. Maybe they thought that one piece of advice was all I could retain.
But if you have to go out into the world with only this one phrase to guide you, this one’s as good as any I can imagine. Because the theme my parents tried to instill in me back when I was six years old was all about how irreplaceable trust is as you make your way in this world.
Trust is important as we grow up, but it’s even more invaluable in the workplace. Because trust in the workplace is the single most enduring component of the corporate giants that now drive the global economy.
Developing the “Right” Type of Trust: Informed and Supportive, but not Blind
When you think about the corporate giants of our age – industry leaders like Microsoft, Intel, Southwest Airlines, Nucor Steel, Procter & Gamble, GE – they all share an incredibly important trait despite competing in widely different business areas.
All of these corporate giants trust their people, up and down the line, to “do the right thing.”
At Southwest Airlines this means gate agents and baggage handlers hustling to make sure planes leave on time (which you don’t see) as well as flight attendants making customers feel that flying in a crowded cattle car with peanuts to eat is fun (and this you most certainly do see and appreciate).
At P&G this means scientists, researchers and financial analysts developing the right product innovations on accelerating product development cycles (which you don’t see) as well as brand managers making customers feel more comfortable, more pampered, more beautiful and more healthy (all of which you see and appreciate).
In each of these leading companies and in others, in traditional industries and most especially in e-commerce, the best companies are those that trust their employees to do whatever is necessary to delight customers, exceed expectations and deliver results.
Now let’s be real clear about this: trust is not simply wishing your people the best and hoping they do well. Trust is not the absence of management, or management simply not meddling. This all sounds more like neglect to me, not trust. Or as one of my friends once said about her company: “From what I can tell, ‘empowerment’ around here sure feels a lot like ‘abandonment’ to me!”
To be effective, trust has to be accompanied by three important characteristics.
Informed – employees need to be informed if they are going to accept the level of trust that the best performing companies routinely exhibit.
But most companies don’t do nearly enough to communicate with their employees: to train them in their business fundamentals, to keep them updated about industry developments, to create a knowledge-driven workforce that understands and accepts change.
Trust can only work when employees throughout the company are informed about the business mission, the key organizational goals, the status of competition and their own well being.
Therefore, a key pre-condition of trust is a heavily trained, highly informed workforce.
Supportive – trust only works when there is support up and down the line. In the military they call this “Loyalty above and loyalty below.” In the real world, they call this “good manners.”
In the business world, the key to exhibiting support is learning to tolerate failure. And since we’re all human and destined to fail upon occasion, this seems like a reasonable approach.
But once again, my experience clearly indicates that there is a very, very modest tolerance for failure in most companies. At one client, my “supportive” CEO client said: “We really want to create a vibrant new product development group. We understand how difficult it is to succeed with new product development. But since this is new to us, make sure the first new product is a big success.”
To which I replied: “If I could assure you that the first one would be successful, don’t you think I’d make them all successful. It don’t work that way.”
And, sad to say, this company’s new product development efforts have been a miserable failure for the past 6 years.
Trust works in the workplace when people understand that they are encouraged to succeed, but allowed to fail. Failure should create learning and improved future performance, not “career termination.”
And once this type of support from the top down is in place, then the reciprocal obligation is for front line employees to trust and support management – because, most certainly, management doesn’t get it right every time.
“Not Blind” – trust can’t be blind. Trust is not you standing by while I drive a car off a cliff. That’s neglect. Trust is you coming to me as I’m revving the engine to say: “Hey buddy, I’ve been off that cliff before. And you might want to look over the edge of that cliff – it’s a heck of a long way down. Think this through before you hit the gas.”
I’ve never believed in blind loyalty. That’s stupid. I believe in “critical loyalty,” the sort of loyalty that motivates me to be involved with you, and to help you with insights, whether positive or negative, as long as they’re supportive.
I’ll admit that there are subtle differences here – “critical loyalty” to one person might be “intolerable meddling” to another. But these guidelines are sound. They simply need to be calibrated to your organization.
Kick-Starting a Culture of Trust
The best way to create a culture of trust in an organization is to start with a culture of trust. Many of the industry titans I’ve mentioned in this article have done exactly that. For entrepreneurs, the lesson is clear:
This is sound advice if you’re starting a new company (or a new business unit) and have the luxury to create a new corporate culture.
But what about kick-starting a culture of trust within a company that perhaps doesn’t have deep levels of trust? Most companies today, for example.
I don’t want to minimize this challenge. It’s an incredible, daunting challenge, more than most people can handle.
But if you have key executive backing – if top decision-makers are willing to stay the course, whether this is in a business, in a business unit or in a work group – then the basic five guidelines to follow are:
So any initiative to create trust needs to feature frequent communications about what progress has been made, where progress has fallen short, and where the organization stands in terms of its goals for changing its culture.
What's amazing is how positively people respond to being told the truth, even when the truth isn't as positive as everyone might like.
Admittedly, these five guidelines provide only bare bones advice – you need to adapt these rules to the reality of each situation.
But these guidelines provide a workable framework for any organization to develop initiatives that build trust and drive enhanced performance.
So Get Started – NOW!
My hope is that the observations, examples and anecdotes in this article help you understand how you might be able to enhance the level of “informed and supportive” trust in your organization.
If you’re willing to make the commitment to reach down into your organization to enhance the level of trust your company enjoys, then I’m with you.
Dave "Lefty" Lefkowith is a dynamic hands-on change agent, successful as an executive, a corporate consultant, an entrepreneur and a speaker/trainer.
Dave provides leaders and organizations with the practical insights they need to be successful in the 21st Century. In today's business environment of unprecedented speed, turmoil and opportunity, Dave helps 21st Century Leaders with the right attitude, passion and guts stay focused on prosperity.
From Koosh Balls to Pampers, from power plants to pizzerias, Dave has worked with public and private organizations of every size to help them achieve unprecedented success. Effective at working with every level of the organization, Dave pushes the envelope to go beyond incremental improvement, all the way to personal and organizational transformation.
Dave earned his BA from Yale University (summa cum laude) and his MBA from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business (as an Arjay Miller Scholar). Dave started his career at Procter & Gamble, where he helped launch six new national brands. Dave served as the COO of a national chain of retail stores in his late 20s, and for almost 20 years has worked as a corporate change agent specializing in growth-oriented initiatives, new product development, leadership skills development and cultural / organizational change. Visit Lefty at www.davelefkowith.com
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