Trust: The New Workplace Currency

How to get it and why it matters.

Three Things Never to Do If You Want Employee Trust

Leader trust alert: these actions diminish trust

Two articles caught my attention recently. The first highlighted Barclay's announcement eliminating 12,000 jobs, while increasing investment banker bonuses despite falling profits.

The second concerned blowback after the AOL CEO discussed strong earnings in a TV interview, then referenced employee 401(k) changes that would save the company money. He cited healthcare costs and "complicated pregnancies" from AOL employee families as the reason the company incurred 7.1 million dollars in increased healthcare costs. The article noted the CEO's compensation had, "quadrupled to $12 million in 2012."

Companies are entitled to make these kinds of decisions. But, what's surprising is when they're surprised that when they do, the twitterverse and blogosphere lights up; not to mention unfiltered responses from those they employ.

Increasing bonuses while laying off thousands of employees is a trust-diminishing action. So is heralding high earnings while reducing employer 401(k) contributions and citing the reason as health care costs from the people who helped create those higher earnings.

From a trust-diminishing vantage point these actions were significant. Not because of the way they were discussed or announced, but because trust is tied to deeper messages of value, intention, and behavioral integrity. These examples serve as an illustration of three leader not-to-dos if you want employee trust:

  1. Your actions are not aligned with stated organizational values. Too many companies follow the herd to create organization values, without making those values an aligned part of the culture for decision making and actions taken. When nice sounding values, found on company websites and in employee handbooks, are said to be important by the company, yet aren't used for operating decisions, they encourage more than cynicism; they create distrust. AOL's website states: "Our values are our North Star in everything we do." It goes on to define one value as: "We trust and root for each other—we win as a team." I'm wondering how many AOL employees think the decision to limit contributions to their 401(k), despite high earnings, was a "team win."

  2. You say it, but don't mean it. Barclay's career website has a section called "Meet our people" with the words "Find out more about our most important asset." It's hard to believe a company would eliminate 12,000 of its "most important assets." When any company's "most important assets" are disposable; or their "most important assets" are required to do more with less year after year or do without increases against the backdrop of executive bonuses, the hallow words spoken burn holes of distrust. If you want to give high bonuses to a select few, do that, but don't do it against shallow fluff and insincere messages that everyone matters here.

  3. You choose "can" over "should." Leaders who operate like one of Henry VIII's newly minted wives on The Tudors, who remarked to an acquaintance, "I can because I can," are right—they can reward a few; say one thing and do another; or use employees as interchangeable pieces in a game with few winners. Objectives vary, certainly. You can increase profits and stock prices that way, but you won't build trust. Bad work cultures don't always mean bad results. But distrust does cost in lower engagement, decreased innovation, increased turnover, reduced accountability, and higher stress. The issue isn't whether you can, but whether you should ignore the costs of distrust.

Trust doesn't come with your authority. It doesn't come with your title. And it certainly doesn't come with your words. It comes from well-intentioned and self-aligned actions.

More about trust building at work:

You'll find more trust building approaches in Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation (Career Press, 2014).

Nan S. Russell is a workplace expert with real-world experience, and the author of Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way.

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