Trust : Creating a Trusting Work Environment

Jody is an associate of the Individual Development Organization who has been inspiring audiences for over 35 years. She has been an active member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers for over six years and has held several leadership positions. In her spare time she enjoys doing stand up comedy and yoga (but not at the same time).

Jody writes a syndicated column called the Joy of Work which is published in over 65 magazine and trade journals and is dedicated to helping individuals and organizations derive more meaning and satisfaction from their work. She is author of the book All Work & No SAY, which contains valuable advice, inspirational quotes and hundreds of ideas to increase job satisfaction by focusing on employee input.

Checkout her website www.idoinspire.com


•  Assess the Level of Trust in Your Workplace

•  Understand How Trust Affects the Bottom Line

•  Seven Steps to Increase Trust in Your Workplace

Imagine a workplace that relies on fraud, deceit and regular scams as a way of doing business. Its niche is carved out of false promises and open lies. Thankfully, most organizations like this only enjoy a very brief existence. Contrast the very corrupt organization with one holding a spotless record and unblemished past, and it becomes logical that many organizations fit somewhere between these two extremes. Tenuous balances of trust underlie all business activity. One factor that will negatively affect your organization’s level of say is suspicion. If employees don’t feel trusted, they will guard their words and be reluctant to offer input.

Symphony of Trust

How much do you trust your staff and why does it matter? Trust affects the bottom line: the way you treat your employees is the way they will treat clients. If it’s acceptable that an organization or manager doesn’t have to keep promises, then you can almost guarantee employees won’t be keeping promises to clients either.

“People do business with people they trust.” You’ve heard this before. A client’s trust in an organization starts with an organization’s trust in its employees. As Lance Secretan quips in Reclaiming Higher Ground, “Our society is suffering from truth decay.” He holds that, especially in teams, telling the truth is essential to good business. “If the members of a symphony lie to each other, they will play awful music,” he maintains. So it goes in any team environment. Another compelling advantage for telling the truth is that it’s efficient. Over a third of an organization’s budget may be devoted to administrative functions such as controls, reports and procedures. Many controls exist because management doesn’t trust employees. What if we could nix some of these controls and trust each other to do our best? It would be much less expensive and much more efficient.

Exploding the Trust Myth: “We Trust Each Other”

Many organizations think that trust isn’t a concern. On the surface everything is fine, but on closer inspection one might discover that employees are seeking to satisfy only their basic immediate needs. Their passion is lost in the details of the job. Over time, working in such an atmosphere precipitates lethargy for some, and for others, illness.

Advantages to an Open Trusting Workplace

  • Employees are more willing to contribute their ideas.
  • Saves resources (time and money).
  • Fuels creativity, innovation and productivity.
  • Encourages controlled risk taking.
  • “Forbidden topics” create fear and take up a lot of personal energy that can be freed up and used for more productive work.
  • Employees will be more eager to get involved knowing they are trusted. More involved = more motivated.
  • Promotes richer relationships among staff.

A Test: Is Low Trust Affecting Your Organization?

Here are some things companies do that cripple the trust factor. Answer yes or no to the questions below to test your trust factor:

Do managers in your organization forget to model what they say? (e.g.: An organization says the most important asset is its people, but then they make changes that affect all employees without notice or input.)

       YES       NO

American aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright said, “A parrot talks much but flies little.”

Do managers make promises they can’t keep? (e.g.: Managers keep talking about a better, fairer scheduling system that never materializes.)

       YES       NO

Do managers tend to avoid dealing with conflict? This comes across in a false persona: “Everything is just great!”

       YES       NO

Does your organization guard and selectively disclose information? (e.g.: There are off-limit zones for some employees. Information is guarded and only a select few are in the know. Meetings happen behind closed doors.)

       YES       NO

Does your organization discourage employees from using their own judgment? (e.g.: The organization always goes by the book. There are several rules designed so that people don’t have to think about what they should do.)

       YES       NO

Do managers ask for input and suggestions, then ignore them? (e.g.: A manager asks for suggestions on improving service. An employee offers two good ideas and no one says anything or brings it up again. Employees get the feeling that management is just going through the motions, and they really don’t want the input.)

       YES       NO

Note: Of course, you won’t use all ideas, but follow-up is essential. It shows you are listening.

Does it seem like everything is monitored, from the number of sick days to productivity levels?

       YES       NO

Are employees “given” information (change in job, new policies and procedures) and not included in it?

       YES       NO

Note: Quality information that is formally and consistently shared builds trust. It softens the barriers between “us” and “them” thinking.

Does your organization encourage competition among its members?

       YES       NO

Note: In a competitive workplace employees will not share information to help one another succeed. Competition reinforces the notion that the end justifies the means.

SCORE: If you answered yes to three or more of the questions above, then trust is likely affecting morale in your workplace.

Defining a Trusting Workplace

When I speak to organizations about creating trust in the workplace, these are the most common observations participants shared about trustworthy companies and individuals:

“She has never let me down.”

“They do what they say they will do.”

“I know the organization has my best interests in mind.”

“He knows what he’s talking about and admits it when he doesn’t.”

How to Build Trust Through Information

Imagine your first day on the job in a new organization. As you walk in the door, you notice rooms that are off-limits to everyone but the manager. Day after day, you see that information is carefully guarded and watched. Meetings occur behind closed doors. As managers walk around, you sense they know something you don’t. Does this sound like a fun and productive work environment?

What’s the big deal? Why do we guard information so carefully? Company information is often seen as intellectual property for both the organization and for individuals who develop it. People put effort into creating information and ideas and start to take ownership of them. In doing so, it becomes territorial and guarded. Pretty soon, a wedge develops between those who have access to information and those who don’t. Individuals start to see they are excluded and feel disconnected from the whole vision of the organization. This diminishes trust and it causes people to guard their ideas and limit their input.

Information bonds people to one another. It is an important part of the positive growth and sense of community within an organization. Cutting people off from access to information is unhealthy for progress. Find ways to make information accessible to everyone. If meetings must occur behind closed doors, make sure others in the department are included. Encourage them to bring their information and ideas to the meeting. Create an after meeting follow-up bulletin that discusses what was said. Much of the important information you get will not be written. Instead, it comes in chance conversations, briefly mentioned in meetings, in the elevator or in the lunchroom. Verify important information and make a point of distributing it to employees.

Explain the reason for any change, and how it will serve management, employees, customers, suppliers, etc. Keep employees well informed of what is going on, why it is happening, and how it affects their job and the organization as a whole. Ask for suggestions and involve everyone as much as possible. Remember that employees are the resource that makes things happen; therefore, it is essential to get their buy-in.

Managing information may be tricky. While you want to keep people informed, you don’t want to overwhelm them with information they don’t need to know. Presentation is the key. Here is a method to handle information:

A Communication System To Make Information Accessible and Build Trust

Decide on the type of information and how you should disseminate it:

  1. Organizational philosophy is anything related to the long-term mission, vision or direction of the organization. This information is very relevant to all employees because it is the “glue” that holds diverse departments of an organization together in a shared purpose. However, it does not need to be presented at year-end when everyone is swamped with work. Save this information and present the bigger picture on a monthly basis to help staff maintain focus. You may also have a newsletter devoted to initiatives that support the organization’s purpose and vision.
  2. Operations and procedures. If information relates directly to an employee’s day-to-day job, the sooner she knows about it the better. If information is important, you need a consistent system to disseminate it efficiently and effectively. That may be through staff meetings, individual coaching, bulletins or announcements. If the information is critical to the job, then a feedback or follow-up procedure will be necessary to ensure it is being incorporated. Develop a channel strictly for sharing critical information so that employees pay attention.
  3. Incomplete information. Very often managers will hear word of potentially “nasty” things like mergers or layoffs that would affect staff adversely. Some of this information may be sensitive and still tentative. If you don’t have full information, you run the risk of putting people on the defensive. Since they don’t have all the pieces of the complete puzzle they may rush to false conclusions which puts you in an awkward situation. Information should be communicated in a uniform and consistent way to prevent a “leak” of partial facts, which will be subject to rumor and false conclusions. Beware of selectively putting some people in the know and not others.

If you consistently organize and disseminate information through established means, then it is more readily understood. Employees will get used to getting updates about directives once a month in a meeting and will develop ways to utilize the information.

Make Mistakes More Often

Encourage employees to risk making mistakes and create an atmosphere that encourages them to be open when errors occur. When people make mistakes they usually feel guilty and try to cover up—an unfortunate reaction that inhibits the learning process. Mistakes are a part of growth. Permit them to be shared so that others may also learn from the example. This will foster an environment of openness that encourages creativity and autonomy. Celebrate solving mistakes as a victory.

Communicate: Why and How

Strategic changes in an organization are usually created by higher-level executives and are initiated for a very good reason. Change supports the organization’s mission, vision, and values, but by the time change reaches your department and affects your clients and staff it’s usually presented as tactics. In other words, we are very good at explaining how change will occur and how it will affect our jobs, but we forget to explain why. The “why” embodies the purpose and the meaning of any new activity. Once employees understand “why”, the “how” often falls into more readily into place. Open the lines of communication. Employees should feel comfortable talking openly and informally in a setting where everyone’s opinion is given equal consideration. When change occurs, employees should be included and involved.

Seven Steps To Building A Trusting Workplace

Step 1—Dialogue: Most importantly, focus on opening the lines of communication. Get people talking and make it a safe atmosphere for employees to share their honest opinions. Discuss the importance of open communication with all leaders.

Step 2—Acknowledge the Unspeakable: Do people hate the overtime policy? Do you have low morale at the office? Are several managers abusing privileges? Touchy issues need to be resolved and openly discussed. Many employees will be quietly harboring ill feelings about such “unspeakables.” It is essential to open the lines of communication. Be careful not to point fingers or place blame inappropriately. Stick to the facts: what’s been happening, why, and what you intend to do about it.

Step 3—Secrecy Breeds Suspicion: When information or activity is kept secret, it is open to misinterpretation, so communication is essential. Develop tools that help communicate what’s going on. Regular email, meetings, newsletters, conference calls, or voicemail keep people in the know. Any new discussion or planning should be shared with all employees sooner than later. Activate your communication system to make information accessible.

Step 4—Keep Promises: Make fewer and better agreements. Don’t commit to something that you can’t follow through with. If you can’t honor an undertaking or proposal, then say so right away and renegotiate. Keep people in the know (e.g.: we are not going to be able to... and here’s why...). Express your regrets and talk about what you plan to do about the problem. Communicate that everyone should be accountable; every level of staff should keep promises. Involve the whole group and advocate everyone’s accountability. Invest in commitments.

Step 5Eliminate Ambiguous Behavior: Anything that isn’t necessary, or that you can’t justify, eliminate. There should be a sound purpose for all activities.

Step 6—Managers Need to Model Trust: Is management consistent, predictable, and trustworthy? All managers should be evaluated along with staff.

Step 7—Rules Should Be Treated as Guidelines, Not Solutions: Employee judgment should be valued to create trusting relationships.

Involve, Involve, Involve. If employees come to you with a concern, why not involve them in the solution? Let them gather a task force and come up with several possible solutions to present to management and other staff. The more involved the naysayers are, the more the problem becomes their own and they take responsibility for it (and the way they feel).

Implement each of the above seven steps in phases. The creation of an open trusting work environment that involves and includes employee input means that all feelings need to be heard, including criticism. Management must be prepared to welcome and handle employee criticism.

How To Encourage Criticism Without Losing Control

This may seem challenging, but the idea is to create an open workspace where it is safe to support one another. How can you accomplish this if employees are afraid to tell managers how they feel? We are not talking outright warfare or blame but ways to establish discussing criticism with managers. Encourage input at individual coaching sessions by asking “Is there anything that has been bothering you that you would like to talk about?” Hold forums where employees can anonymously “get it off their chests” by offering feedback to a manager’s weekly review box. Make sure employees realize that not every criticism can be addressed, especially if it’s anonymous. To prepare employees for using a “feedback box,” stress the need for a positive tone and helpful remedies. Anonymous criticism can be acknowledged in a quarterly “Critique” newsletter. This could be a “Talk to Management” column. The employee addresses the complaint. The newsletter publishes the (anonymous) letter and managers respond to it. Encourage input in a regular “Let’s Talk” focus group where employees are invited to vent about anything they want with their co-workers.

A key challenge for management is responding to criticism of policies or procedures that affect employees but cannot be changed. It is important to handle these critiques in a straightforward and direct manner.

How to Respond to Criticism of Organizational Policies That Can’t Be Changed

How to Respond to Criticism of Organizational Policies That Can’t Be Changed

  1. Express empathy and understanding. “We know these reports can be very frustrating as they take up a lot of your time and don’t yield direct results.”
  2. Provide reasons (the “why”) for the offending regulation. “We really rely on these reports being filled out accurately because they help us keep track of what is going on in the fields. Without them we would…”
  3. Explain any actions the management will do to address the complaint.
  4. Close the response on a positive note.

Too Scared to Trust? Fear Is a Natural Reaction

I’m not suggesting abandoning all rules, throwing management to the wind, or letting people have free reign in their jobs.

Ask employees about their comfort levels. Look at an individual’s capabilities and history. You wouldn’t ask someone excessively shy, with few communication skills, to do a speech for your shareholders. Adding trust and responsibility to a job takes small steps, not huge leaps. This helps employees to predict the behavior of others and minimizes the risk associated with counting on them. Too often plans are not successfully implemented because the appropriate culture is not in place. Strategies are created behind closed doors and given to staff to execute. Like a deer caught in the glare of headlights, employees are stunned by new roles that come speeding towards them. They may not feel comfortable, prepared or confident in the newly appointed role. Allow them to express possible misgivings about the task and to prepare themselves before implementing it.

Final Say

Who gets the final say? Your employees do. Build trust in your office by involving employees and including their input. Engage them as part of the problem and they will surprise you with honest solutions. The foundation of trust in any organization is built on a concrete base of openness and input from others.

Action Plan

  1. Assess the level of trust in your workplace.
  2. Evaluate your communication system and make information more accessible.
  3. Complete and gradually implement the seven steps to increase trust in your workplace


Ó Copyright Jody Urguhart 2005

Professional Speaker and Author Jody Urquhart recently released her book All Work & No Say, ho hum another day How to Captivate Your Workforce, Boost Morale, and Increase Productivity. To purchase your copy of the book please contact us ido@idoinspire.com

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