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Trust Employees? 5 Points to Share with Those Who Doubt

Many people are not aware that to trust or not to trust is a decision usually based on personal experiences we may not even consciously remember. They believe that external events determine whether or not a person or situation is trustworthy. However, most of the time, how we approach a situation produces the outcomes we experience. When you extend trust you are communicating that you value and respect an individual. This supports the individual’s desire and ability to more fully contribute. Distrust ignites a threat response that shuts people down.

If we consider this to be true, or are willing to keep an open mind that it is, then we must also consider that moving from distrust to trust begins with an act of will to delegate power. This feels risky. However, delegation of decision-making at grassroots levels as well as middle management will eventually show you the benefits of trust described below. Be aware that there may be setbacks. These will be temporary if you make corrections without taking back power.

A leader’s decision to trust is at the foundation of a successful team. I have seen it too often for it to be by chance. A senior leader or supervisor is leading a high performance team where people collaborate in the midst of a larger organization where distrust and even violence is the norm for dealing with conflict. They faced the same situation and employee problems that were faced by other managers. Why did they get different results? They make it look so easy, it’s hard to make a formula out of it. They are out talking to people. They know everyone’s name and what’s going on with the family. Information is shared, mistakes are learned from.

I met one of them in 2017 at Rio Tinto. His name is Joe Rae and he had just won recognition for a high performance worksite. He says that he and his managers gained employee’s trust by getting to know them, and listening to their input. Even though the mine still faces the possibility of future layoffs, at his site “we are in it together.” A young manager asks, “Do you ever have to fire or discipline anyone?” “Oh yes!” answered Joe. Building trust and relationships doesn’t mean you never face difficult people. But, when you do apply discipline, your employees back you and you don’t experience the typical backlash you might get in a low trust environment.

Did Joe have any guarantees that his employees would respond to his outreach? No, but he made the decision to trust that they would and they did. Have you made the decision to trust?

Trusting employees results in several important outcomes that contribute to higher performance during good and bad times. The benefits explored here are especially important during times of uncertainty such as mergers and acquisitions, loss of market share, or downsizing. The potential dividends of trusting employees are:

1.    Your leadership and employee capabilities are enhanced. Managers thrive on empowerment just as employees do, and trust is an essential part of the deal. Unfortunately, it is in short supply these days. A survey published in HBR found that 50% of 450 managers in 30 companies didn’t trust their leaders. The 2017 EdelmanTrust Barometer reveals that trust is in crisis around the world.

The good news is that, like Joe Rae, you can sustain or rebuild trust in your organization if you persevere in the leadership behaviors that create it: build relationships, engage in face to face conversation, listen, show you value and respect people by listening and implementing their ideas.

But, will it improve business results? Employee engagement survey research has shown a correlation between intangibles such as caring, friendship, and trust with performance measures such as better safety performance, improved quality and higher profits.

2.    Employees will engage more fully in developing the systems and processes to make your company safer and more productive. Bureaucracy increases as trust decreases. Each time management increases the level of control, employees know that they are less trusted, and disengage. This is a self-protective behavior that can only be turned around by a conscious effort on the part of management to open dialogue, asking how they can be of help, and taking action on those concerns/recommendations. This is difficult to do unless management is willing to embrace the belief that employees are willing and capable of contributing to the business.

We all saw how well relying on a rulebook worked out for United Airlines as we watched videos of a customer being dragged off an airplane in 2017. On the other end of the stick is Nordstrom, one of the most successful retail chains, whose employee handbook consists of one rule. “Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” Some of you are thinking that is impossible when you have regulations to comply with. What about involving employees in deciding how to best comply? When organizations enrolled in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program do, they produce ideas that go beyond compliance and have employee ownership. (For an alternative to bureaucracy see my article on the Eight Beliefs of Relationship Centered Leadership.)

3.    Employees that lost their jobs during a downturn will continue to support your company. When people are let go respectfully, and open, honest communication has been employed, you will reduce the risk that a departing employee will do harm to staff, equipment or customers. Additionally, the remaining employees will feel less pain at the departure of long time friends or employees, and thus will be more engaged. It is well known that the emotional consequences of layoffs affect those left behind and can impact engagement, awareness, and loyalty to the company.

4.    Former employees will be willing to return when demand increases. Departing employees often take skills and talents that are hard to come by when demand for your product increases. This is one of the key issues facing a cyclical industry like oil and gas. Treating the people that you are letting go with trust and respect will make it more likely that they will want to return when or if you need them.

5.    Employees are likely to speak positively about your company and help you win the war for talent. Websites such as Glassdoor provide job seekers with insider information on employee/ management relationships and organizational climate. With the prevalence of social media, a company can no longer hide its problems and attract the best talent.

In the war for talent research points out that Millennials value life style over salary. When you have to spend so many hours at work, the quality of relationships at work make a difference. Unfortunately, the comments for low performing companies often focus on the low trust in management due to lack of respect and caring, thus reducing their chances of attracting the talent they need to improve.


Trusting your employees is a decision that doesn’t always come easily. People let you down sometimes, and one way forward is to learn about people like Joe Rae who bet on the good in people and won. Once that decision is made it reduces bureaucracy and opens the way for employees to improve efficiencies and safety. But, if you want critical information to cross functional boundaries, trust has to extend between all management levels. Can all this be done without C-level executive level buy-in? As long as they are not actively blocking individual action (which can happen), GM’s, plant managers and supervisors can create high performance teams. It happens because relationships will form when people have common goals, mutual respect and a shared understanding of the work that needs to be done.

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