Q. Dear Workforce: How do we repair broken trust? As a facilitator of leadership training, I know trust underlies a foundation of success. But what practical fixes does this entail?
--Trust Deficit, HR training analyst, Colorado Springs, Colorado
A. In this time of organizational restructuring, rapid operational-technological change and economic uncertainty rebuilding trust is definitely a challenging and not uncommon task. However, all levels of management can take the lead in this rebuilding process if they follow some basic principles and key strategic steps. Much of my thinking has been influenced by The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, 2006, a book written by Stephen M. R. Covey, the son of the renowned organizational guru and author, Stephen Covey. In fact, for the son, the foundation of successful leadership is achieving results in a way that inspires trust. There’s an atmosphere of transparency and two-way communication, and employees believe their talents and efforts are contributing to the present and future success of the company. A final leadership core practice: leaders take more than their fair share of blame and give more than their fair share of credit. Or, as was noted in The Speed of Trust: when things go well look out the window; when things go wrong look in the mirror!
With the above framework, and the assumption that there has been some recent loss of trust, here are “Seven Strategic Steps for Rebuilding Organizational Trust”:
1. Hold a Focus Group. One of the best ways to begin a healing and trust building process is a meeting, or a series of meetings, that allow people to appropriately share their concerns or vent frustrations about people or processes that have contributed to a destabilizing or trust-eroding organizational atmosphere or culture. Of course, you need a skilled and objective facilitator. When employees see that management doesn’t get defensive during this exchange and acknowledges broad concerns, participates in a genuine give and take and, in timely fashion, takes meaningful problem-solving steps, trust levels begin to rise.
2. Acknowledge “Hidden Agendas.” When possible, “speak the unspeakable,” that is, bring up the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. Being transparent doesn’t mean you have to put everything on the table, but certainly share appropriate information about problematic issues or about what is and is not in your immediate control, along with what information you do and don’t have. (These last two issues are particularly salient when there are rumors about a possible restructuring or downsizing.)
3. Talk Straight and Ask Good Questions. Try to get to the point without too much digression or over-explanation as this diminishes your credibility with an audience. When possible do some preparation; precision of language commands attention. If this is an issue, what keeps you from talking straight – fear of consequences or being wrong, fear of hurting others, wanting to be liked, a duplicitous environment, etc.? Conversely, ask good questions. The essence of a good question: a) humility: “I don’t have all the answers” and b) openness: “I really would like to hear and learn from your point of view.” Remember, when a person is communicating with high emotion, he or she likely still feels misunderstood.
4. Don’t Bad Mouth Others Behind Their Back, Especially Folks No Longer in the Company. All “behind the back” talk does is fuel employee mistrust: “What do (or will) people say about me when I’m not around (or when I retire)?” And if people are talking negatively about a current employee, encourage people to talk directly with the person; offer to mediate (or to find a mediator) when appropriate.
5. Don’t Overpromise and Under Deliver; Keep Your Commitments. As I like to say, beware of being motivated by egoals, that is, when your goals are driven less by the needs, demands, resources and challenges of a situation and more by ego and false pride. Remember, as Covey notes, when you make a commitment you build hope; when you keep a commitment you build trust!
6. Create a Learning-Trust Building Culture. In addition to acknowledging a personal mistake in a timely manner, when possible view errors as less a sign of incompetence and more an indicator of inexperience or some immaturity, maybe even boldness.
7. Extend Trust. Design rules and procedures for the overwhelming majority of people you can trust. Grant trust abundantly to those who’ve earned it; extend conditionally to those earning it, while examining the situation, the risk potential and the credibility – for Covey, the competence and character – of those involved for more opportunities to extend trust.