The difficulty of sustaining Trust in an Organization

Economy, Industry News, Work Place Competencies

“Trust is a fragile thing, easy to break, easy to lose and one of the hardest things to ever get back” – Unknown

Recently, I was talking to a “high performer” employee of a client organization. It was a one to one conversation, and I could sense a wall of ‘everything is fine!’ between us which was screening her true feelings. Maybe she did not want to get into trouble or was not sure if she could confide in me. Being a good performer she was identified as a valuable asset by the company. It was important for me to peek behind the ‘wall’. Eventually, I sensed that for some reason she did not trust the organization. Further probing revealed that there had been incidents with ‘other employees’ or ‘lack of commitment’ by leadership which had created that feeling. The damage had been done. She left the organization after a few months.

In my experience of working with multiple organizations, I find that the most difficult thing to sustain is trust among the employees.

Most employees join the organization with a trusting approach. They believe what is being promised to them and being shown as the ‘true’ face of the company. But then promises are broken and lapses in commitment. Excuses are given and no apologies are forthcoming. Slowly the trust erodes and the decay starts.

Once the mistrust is sown, the ‘social dynamics’ of the organization take over and the employees build on the perception till it becomes a strong belief among them.

‘Corporate stories’ can play a powerful role in sustaining mistrust among employees.

In one of my earlier employer organizations, during a crisis, the CEO abruptly sacked senior leaders on two separate occasions. Though he learnt his lessons and it was not repeated, he could never again regain the trust of his leadership team. The organizational ‘social network’ refused to let go of those ‘stories’ till the CEO himself left the organization.

In today’s networked world, the employees are connected all the time. We share our thoughts, feelings and experiences in real time and if the leadership is not demonstrating integrity or authenticity, such mistrust can build up very rapidly among employees, without the leadership being aware of the ‘damage’.

A lot has been written on building Trust in the organization. From my own experience, a few crucial pointers for leaders, which could go a long way in building trust would be thus:

  1. Trust is built from the first interaction with the employee… which is the interview itself. Interviewers should refrain from promising or suggesting anything which is not true. A true and candid picture of the company should be presented to the potential employee. I have witnessed leaders of large reputed organizations resorting to ‘white lies’ during interviews to pull in good candidates, and the employees talk about the ‘false promises’ for years, exaggerating the stories to make an impact.
  2. Fulfill promises and commitments: If you commit something, do it. Possibly do it ahead of time and a bit more than promised. If you are unable to do it, apologize openly and honestly, give the true reasons and try making up in the best way possible. Don’t ignore or hide behind false stories. A leader in one of my client organizations
  3. Communicate openly and continually: Be as transparent as possible. Talk to employees about what is happening in the organization. Squash rumors and any ‘corporate stories’ before they become part of the organizational ‘social fabric’. Share the good and also the bad. Talk about ugly exits, bad decisions or failures. Be candid about cash crunches or bad performances. In today’s networked world, if you don’t tell the real story, a distorted ‘story’ will do the rounds taking the control away from you.
  4. Be impartial: The same rules should apply to everyone. If there is a special case, there should be a very good reason, which should be clearly communicated.
  5. Engage, Engage, Engage: Talk to people, ask them about their jobs, families and lives. Greet them with eye contact and a strong handshake. Touch them emotionally. Feel their happiness and pain. Connect with the human in them.

Trust within organizations is similar to ordinary relationships and yet more complex. In organizations, it involves multiple engagements, hierarchies, rules and policies and relationships. Thus, it takes multiple negative incidents for an employee to lose trust in his organization. But once it starts getting eroded, it’s much more difficult to retrieve in the maze of organizational dynamics.

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