The word “foundational” was carefully chosen here. Trust is foundational in management, as it’s the solid floor on which the rest of the manager-employee relationship is built. Without a strong foundation, a relationship is unsteady at best.
Given the importance of trust in any relationship, business or personal, it’s surprising how often it’s absent in managerial relationships. The macro-level statistics invariably paint a disappointing picture. The recent Gallup workforce survey, for example, places the number of disengaged employees in the U.S. at 70%, a figure that should alarm productivity experts everywhere.
Why is trust between employee and manager in chronically short supply? There’s no single simple answer, but there are identifiable high-level factors. When I think back to my own four decades in the workforce, of which more than two decades were in management, a few broad themes recur.
Disingenuous communication from management to the rank and file. Lack of credibility will erode trust faster than you can say “rightsizing.” (Employees have finely honed "spin detectors," and excessive spin seldom yields the intended results.)
Modeling behavior employees don’t fully respect. While leading by example should be (dare I say it) foundational, it’s been known to happen that management doesn’t demonstrate the actions they expect of others.
Financial pressures that force management into actions they’d much prefer not to take. Few in management enjoy reducing staff, trimming benefits, cutting bonuses and so forth, yet these are often inevitable consequence of weak business results. Hard circumstances force good people into difficult decisions. In these instances future trust may well be determined by how things are done (e.g. with transparency and candid explanation, as opposed to minimal or dubious communication).
It’s worth noting that issues like communication and behavior are within an individual’s power to control, whereas financial pressures may be uncontrollable.
As a manager myself, I recognized it was critical for my employees to trust me if I expected them to be fully productive on my watch. For the most part I believe I was reasonably successful in this, yet I know there were times I lost employees’ trust, and even failed badly. Let’s consider a few examples.
- I lacked the courage to support someone who deserved it when faced with (arguably unfair) organizational pressures. Trust in my leadership was an immediate casualty.
- Management systems such as Forced Rankings (aka “stacking”) put me in a position to deliver performance messages I sometimes didn’t completely believe in. Yet I had to deliver them, since that was my management role, which I understood and fully accepted and was well compensated for… at times to the detriment of productive employee relationships. With trust in me eroded. (No one ever said management was an easy job!)
- Employees occasionally had unrealistic opinions of their own performance or behavior. (Relevant old saying: “There are no guilty people in prison.”) In these cases, I never regretted losing someone’s trust, as I was simply doing what I completely believed the job required.
Even with the best of intentions there are innumerable ways in the business world trust can be undermined—and, once lost, it’s hard to regain. An employee will naturally think: This person betrayed my trust before—why should I believe he or she won’t do it again?
In short, trust is a fragile commodity in management, yet an exceedingly valuable one. It can make all the difference between an employee who is emotionally committed to an organization—engaged—and highly productive, and one who is disengaged or even destructive.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).
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