Last year, I was leading a program on respect and trust with a dozen mid-level managers at a new client’s headquarters, when I found myself in a strange situation: everyone stopped talking. I was covering the four conditions that must be met for a relationship to have a high level of trust — competence, openness & honesty, concern for others’ best interests, and reliability — and I mentioned that employer trust among its employees is crucial to a healthy company culture. At that point, the mood of the room turned very cold, and everyone in the class clammed up.
“Was it something I said,” I asked, trying to make a joke. No one laughed. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, someone asked me, “Don’t you know what happened here last month?” I had to admit I didn’t; this was my first program with this new client. They filled me in. It seems that there had been a massive layoff a few weeks before my arrival. It had come without any warning, with no explanations or justifications from the leadership other than “necessary change.” Most of my participants had watched scores of longtime friends and colleagues unceremoniously escorted out of the building, carrying their belongings in cardboard boxes. They were still in shock, and I started wondering how I was going to carry on teaching a class on respect and trust in a company where both had been so abruptly lost.
Loss of employer trust can be as shocking and as devastating as losing trust in a partner or spouse; sometimes even more so when it means a loss of income too. Despite the current economic boom, employers are surprised when employees – especially younger ones who’ve grown up with the concept of ‘last in, first out’ drummed into their heads – fail to trust their leadership. The fact is, according to workplace experts like Baker McKenzie, the current breakneck speed of change and disruption in business and management’s continuous need to realign, adapt, and adjust to those changes, is contributing to a hyper-anxious environment where few employees are certain of anything, least of all if they have a job tomorrow.
It’s almost impossible to thrive in such an environment, mostly because the four conditions of trust simply aren’t being met. Without confidence in our leadership’s competence to navigate in a roiling sea of change, we tend to go negative about everything. Without openness and honesty about what’s going on with our companies, we fill in the gaps with imagined threats and catastrophizing. Without the sense that our leaders have our best interests at heart, we look for greener and safer pastures. And if our leaders aren’t reliable – in other words, they don’t do what they say they’re going to do – we tend to lose all employer trust and rely only on ourselves. No one would say this is a healthy state. Yet too many people in our workforce would say this is exactly the kind of corporate culture they’re operating in.
As a leader, of course you have a fiduciary responsibility for the health and well-being of your company. At the same time, as a respectful leader, you have the same responsibility toward those in your charge – your employees. If you pay as much careful attention to them as you do your bottom line, you will find their trust in you will be high, and they in turn will reward you with loyalty, perseverance, and a willingness to go the extra mile in uncertain times. In an organization with a trusting culture like this, it’s entirely likely that the kinds of shocking, wholesale layoffs my new client had engaged in will be completely unnecessary.
If you respect and trust your employees, they will return the compliment to you and your customers. It’s that simple.