Why a low-trust workplace is a problem and how to fix one

by Marie-Claire Ross
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MARIE-CLAIRE ROSS draws on her years of experience in workplace sociology to show how easy it is to both break and rebuild trust in your team.

Over the years, I have worked with many low trust teams to improve their performance. Repeatedly, I still see well-meaning leaders inadvertently destroy trust in their teams.

Why is this a problem?

Employees believe that trust in leadership is the biggest issue impacting their work performance.

Ignoring trust issues means that businesses are missing out on employees being highly effective in their work. These include positive employee behaviours such as loyalty, discretionary effort, willingness to change and the ability to innovate and collaborate. According to Gallup, this is costing Australian business $70 billion a year.

As a leader, if your team members don’t trust you, it will make it much harder to get things done. Before you automatically assume that your employees do trust you, an astonishing 76 percent of Australian employees don’t completely trust their leaders.

Whether you are in your first leadership role, a new team leader in an established or new team, every single employee will be watching you to see whether you will do what you say you will. In fact, findings from a Towers Watson study show that it takes on average seven months to build trust.

Let’s take a look at some of the simple mistakes that leaders often make that destroy trust in their teams and stop team members from contributing to their fullest abilities.

People first, then results

Everybody should see evidence that their boss is willing to support them and understand their challenges. This means you must be emotionally and physically available when people need help. It also involves removing roadblocks, providing resources, and training.

Surprisingly, a research study found that the top way employees judge the trustworthiness of their boss is how quickly they respond to their emails. Leaders who choose to respond within a couple of days imply to the sender that their query isn’t important enough. True or not – perception is reality. And if people rely on you for advice, decisions or input, then the slower the response, the more it disempowers people to do work at a high standard.

But it’s not just email response times that people look out for. In one organisation I worked with, the team leader would regularly cancel one-on-one meetings. The excuse was that they had to do urgent work for the senior leadership team, but all that did was prove to team members that senior leaders were more important.

Always ensure that any leadership decision you make takes your people into account, or provides evidence you considered their needs. A common complaint is that low trust leaders make decisions that don’t consider how it will impact employees. Whether you are making a decision as part of a leadership team or deciding on your interactions with direct reports, always ensure you are putting people first, not results.

Warm greetings

This might seem silly, but it’s surprising how often leaders fail to greet people when they start a new workday. Call me old-fashioned, but common courtesies such as smiling and greeting people go a long way to building trust. It doesn’t matter how busy you are – say hello and be friendly.

Understand your team’s unique challenges

Leaders often assume that they know what their team is going through. But if you have never been a team member that has done the day-to-day work, your team members will judge you.

I worked with a team whose new leader had never experienced the gruelling, stressful work of a facility management lead. The leader made all the right noises about understanding the competing demands from different project managers, yet would choose to request work ‘at the eleventh hour’, which required direct reports to stop work and prioritise this new task. Even if it meant they had to stay back late to get it done.

Poor consultation and a misunderstanding of tasks create discomfort and alienation. If you have never done the daily work of your team, do what you can to spend time with them observing or even doing what they do. Not only will they respect you more, but it will also reduce the likelihood of making incorrect assumptions about their tasks.

Listen and take action

There is one thing every person wants – to be understood, valued and respected.

However, leaders often pay lip service to listening. While they might organise a meeting to allow people to have their voice heard, their behaviours betray them. Common complaints are avoiding eye contact when people are speaking, making disinterested noises, tapping their fingers or moving on to the next person without acknowledging what has been said.

Always make sure you make eye contact during discussions, ask questions to show interest, confirm information and try not to cut people off mid sentence. Then, follow up and do what you promised.

Open up to difficult conversations

In a low trust culture, people are often fearful about speaking up. People will gossip for years about ex-employees who spoke their mind only to be promptly dismissed. These stories become part of the cultural folklore that keeps well-meaning employees afraid of speaking the truth. Fear pushes important information underground, so that leaders are often the last ones to find out about big issues.

Avoid being defensive when people challenge you. Never dismiss issues or tell untruths about the future. If you can’t tell people confidential information, it’s better to say that than to deny what you do know. And remember, you can’t fix a problem if you’re not talking about it.

Prioritise team interests

Leaders who put their own interests first over the team’s risk quickly destroying trust. Your direct reports will make the decision to trust you based on how much you are helping them succeed in their career. They need to see that you back them, before they are willing to go the extra mile.

Do what you can to prioritise time with your direct reports – in weekly team meetings, regular one-on-ones and drop-in chats. Introducing more social events also goes a long way to demonstrating that you intend to be more inclusive and supportive of your team members.

For stressful job roles, your team members will really want you to be available at least 60 to 70 percent of the time each week for them. In organisations where leaders are mostly measured on operational KPIs and delivery, work needs to be done to ensure leaders have enough time to spend with their people. Otherwise, teams will resent their leader and feel unappreciated and disconnected from the company’s goals.

Communicating an inspiring vision

Every employee wants to know that their organisation is doing well and that they are part of the forward momentum. But when leaders fail to inspire people with an exciting vision, it’s amazing how often gossip increases and a lack of accountability sets in.

According to social psychology research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we need external goals and feedback. When external input is lacking, attention begins to wander and thoughts become chaotic.

People seek help from leaders for goal setting, direction and purpose. They want to feel the work they are doing is appreciated and has meaning. Take time to explain the importance of the work being done.

Being a high-trust leader

As a leader, you are constantly being watched. Always ensure you are modelling positive behaviours that will get the best out of your team and create a thriving, enjoyable environment.

Do what you can to build trust quickly with your direct reports. And, if your organisation demands you act in ways that destroy trust, then it is important you do what you can to change the situation.

Bio: Marie-Claire Ross is chief corporate catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to empower employees to speak up about issues, challenge each other and share information. If you want to know the costs of departments working in silos, use Trustologie’s complimentary calculator. Visit: http://www.trustologie.com.au/cost-of-working-in-silos-calculator/


Image credit: 123rf’s Syaheir Azizan ©123rf.com

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