We always knew, or maybe suspected, the importance of trust in organizations. Employee engagement surveys have routinely probed this. But rare is the organization and brave the leader who sets out to action when scores on this dimension report low.
Trust forms the basis for effective communication, retention of key talent, employee motivation, and in the “contribution of discretionary energy, the extra effort that people voluntarily invest in work”, as Susan Heathfield, an organizational development consultant, so aptly puts it.
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Creating a work environment based on trust takes working. Trust is experienced in the daily humdrum of organizational life, not manufactured at great getaways, off-sites, team-building or even value-clarification sessions (with no malice towards any of these great initiatives). Crucial to trust building are integrity of leadership, a transparent and open culture, clarity of roles and responsibilities, commensurate empowerment and communicating the “why” and “how” of critical decisions to employees. Most important is the hiring and growing of organizational leaders with the capacity to build trusting and positive interpersonal relationships. Building trust is therefore hard work.
Contrarily and unfortunately, losing trust happens in a heartbeat. An old ditty very popular in an era of autograph books ran something like this:
“Friendship is like china,
Precious, fine and rare,
If broken can be mended,
But the crack is always there!”
How apt for trust too. Trust is lost when commitments or organizational promises, made or perceived to have been made, are not honoured. Employees respect truthfulness in decisions, however unpleasant or unfavourable. Loss of trust is seen in the sullen silence of employees or external venting of grievances.
For those of us who were under the misconception that this really was a subcontinental phenomenon (and I confess I have often belonged to this brigade), the universal importance of trust in the employee value proposition may come as a surprise, even maybe a pleasant one. At San Antonio last month for a Thought Leaders Retreat, so efficiently and elegantly organized by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), speaker after speaker expounding on behalf of the North Americas, Europe, China and, of course, India, reinforced this eloquently and in unambiguous tones.
If a larger feeling of trust in the employer were seen to positively influence retention and talent management in China, in a Europe shaken by the financial crisis with a resultant loss of credibility in public institutions, the tailoring of initiatives to regain trust was highlighted as a core organizational priority. And a successful North American perspective with emphasis on organizational purpose, possibility (opportunities to develop and achieve), and pride (recognition and a feeling of belongingness) had as its underlying theme the core tenet of Employee Trust.
The reinforcement came in a thought-provoking session by Karen Stephenson, a corporate anthropologist and a prolific author. In her session and through her books, of special note The Quantum Theory of Trust: Power, Networks and the Secret Life of Organizations, Stephenson has linked the relationship between trust and learning in organizations. Explaining this theory in his column in strategy+business, editor-in-chief Art Kleiner states, “The act of reconnecting and talking with a trusted colleague generally triggers a resurgence of mutual memory, opening the gates to fresh learning and invention.”
“People have at their very finger tips, at the tip of their brains, tremendous amounts of tacit knowledge, which are not captured in our computer systems or on paper,” says Stephenson. “Trust is the utility through which this knowledge flows.” She reinforces the effectiveness of mentorship in knowledge transfer because of this core element of trust on which it is ultimately based. The impact of lay-offs and attrition on corroding these trusting relationships and therefore the related knowledge flow is a key issue that organizations need to understand and address.
She further expounds in her paper What Knowledge Tears Apart, Networks Make Whole that networks in organizations are formed because of trust and are critical for the pivotal role they play in slowing, accelerating or successfully managing change in organizations. Of special importance she says are “pulsetakers” with their close links to others in the organization, “behind the scene, but all-seeing”. Therefore, for effective cultural change, it is critical to understand the key leverage points in these trusted networks and ensure that they are co-opted.
Trust-building interventions while powerful, however, succeed only when the intent both in spirit and letter are aligned. It is also important to keep the covenant in trying times. Remember, no pink slips before Diwali, or Thanksgiving, if you are reading this in the US.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She also serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations
Write to Hema at email@example.com