Maximising trust in the workplace

Trust is a basic ingredient for any good relationship – and that includes relationships in the workplace and between employee and employer. A lack of trust in the workplace is a serious problem and when lost, trust can be difficult to rebuild.

Many organisations seek to empower employees by ‘up-ending the hierarchy’, reversing the traditional hierarchical pyramid and trusting customer-facing staff to make decisions.

However, this attractive, people-focused solution does not ensure that an organisation will develop a culture of trust. There are plenty of examples of successful organisations that have been led by despotic leaders who, despite their personal failings, have managed to instil a culture of trust in their employees.

There is no simple answer, and up-ending the hierarchy is no necessarily the path that organisations should take, as the solution depends on the company and the market that it is in. But it is important that a trusting culture is developed that matches the organisation’s market requirements.

The operating environment in which an organisation exists needs to be clearly defined so that a culture is created which is able to support the needs of that operating environment. This will result in the organisation creating trust that is specific to the business and its market and built with a purpose – rather than just because it is a nice thing to have.

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If we were to take the innovative and creative environment of a fashion house and establish a military-style management culture, the creativity of employees would probably be stifled and both design and product would flounder.

To be creative, staff need to feel supported and to be confident of that support. Empowered autonomy ensures the success of this type of organisation and allows staff to operate in a free, creative way without fearing for their position or prospects.

In the financial services sector, however, trust and the mechanisms for delivering it may be quite different from that of the empowered fashion house. To ensure that high-quality customer service is delivered in the most effective way, frontline staff in a financial company rely on defined boundaries and structured mechanisms within a hierarchy. 

Above customer-facing frontline staff there will be a structured operation of product and systems development which ensures consistency of delivery and high-quality service to customers. This operating environment is fundamentally different from that of the fashion house as it is rigorously regulated. Trust in this organisation comes from security and confidence in the certainty of its structures and accountability.

These are just two examples of the many business environments, and it is imperative that organisations identify what their own operating environments need – in these cases certainty and security or freedom and space. Each organisation should develop its own template for trust, whether it targets individuals or the company as a whole.

A basis for learning
A common strand in a trusting environment is that learning can take place through experience. Underpinning learning is the importance of recognising and gathering data such as bad sales figures or negative customer feedback.

Feeling secure enough to recognise and gather such data and feeling able to challenge it, creates an environment where learning and modification can occur. This means that, rather than harbouring a culture of defensiveness, difficult conversations can happen without any party feeling blamed or chastised.

As customer expectations alter, employees need to be able to react quickly. It is, therefore, vital that inter-departmental and inter-organisational dealings are swift, trusting and effective. The only way to ensure this happens it to foster effective working relationships that enable employees to continually improve and correct errors cross-functionally.

Employees should be empowered to speak directly to colleagues across departmental boundaries as eroding cross-functional barriers helps to avoid long-winded, time-consuming and expensive communications processes, which may result in confusion, suspicion and lack of trust.

Just as no two pairs of eyes are the same, there are no two identical business environments.

Whether the development of a culture appropriate to the operating environment is achieved through establishing a hierarchy or by upending it, the approach is contingent upon developing a continuum of trust, confidence, risk-taking and support, and aligning the personal development of employees to this continuum. 

Failure to recognise the importance of trust in the workplace can undermine organisational effectiveness, breed stakeholder resentment and add another nail of cynicism to the coffin of corporate integrity.

Godfrey Owen is deputy chief executive of people development organisation Brathay

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