Do Managers Take Trust for Granted?
Trust is a big issue these days judging from the volume of responses to this month's column. Its importance in management is agreed on. There is a long list of behaviors that can damage it. The list of things that can be done to restore it is equally long. Yet many managers are experiencing a trust deficit. What's up?
Reasons for the trust deficit, in the view of respondents, included the following: (1) "(management) actions … inconsistent with the mission and vision of the company" (Linda Murphy); (2) an emphasis on "productivity, effectiveness and of achievement at all costs" (Liam); (3) "excessive turnover and continuous change" (Marlis Krichewsky); (4) leaders who "use ambiguity and weasel words in their promises" (Jim Conlow); (5) managers who make "unwritten promises" that are not fulfilled (Kamal Hossain); (6) behaviors of managers who "compete with each other to climb to the next higher level" and make unfulfilled promises to do so (Subrata Chakraborty); (7) a "modern fashion of us all being 'economical with the truth' in our communications with other people" (Hugh Quick); and (8) management that does "not observe sanctions when trust is violated" (Tony Smale).
Charles Green added that "We don't have it because we haven't taught it, learned it, practiced it." In fairness, Rolf Van Dulst points out that the cause for broken promises that lead to damaged trust may well be "plans and intentions … (that are) overtaken by circumstances beyond … control."
There were even more suggestions about what to do about the trust deficit, other than just making sure that all expectations and promises are fulfilled on a regular basis. For starters, Karen Caswelch suggested that we take steps to ensure that in our hiring, we consistently select people who share and value behaviors that produce trust as a shield against management turnover that leads to broken commitments.
Mike Flanagan stressed the importance of ensuring that "transparency, honesty, communication, consistency and predictability are present" in everything we do as managers. Jill Machol noted the importance of keeping employees "informed as information (regarding change) becomes available." Ann Brown commented that "The best an organization's management team can do is be transparent (and) … persistently continue open conversation and not expect to be perfect." Karl Hunrick suggested that we need to employ more managers willing to take risk, because "Without risk there can be no trust." Bruno Borghi pointed out that "Trust requires reciprocity." Mike Beer suggested that managers succeed by "inviting honest, collective and public conversations," in the process "making themselves vulnerable." Bob Lee added that "Trust is a factor of relationships, not the least of which, with one's self."
Questions that we might ask ourselves include several posed by Maree Stewart: Are women more or less trusting than men? Are young people more or less trusting than older? What part do unions play? My concern, of course, is whether there is anything here that can be or remains to be taught? As Dan Wallace, a graduate of Harvard Business School, points out "… none of this was addressed when I was a student there … trust would be more prevalent if our best schools of leadership taught it."
Finally, Richant raised a point in advancing a hypothesis for the trust deficit to which I had given little thought. He said: "the problem starts with … management having a belief that they (already) are trusted." Carrying that thought to its ultimate conclusion, therefore there is no need to pursue the question. Do managers take trust for granted? What do you think?
Revered management thought-leaders such as Chris Argyris and the late W. Edwards Deming argued years ago that trust is an essential condition for good performance. Trust is an issue on the minds of many people these days. A good portion of the daily news centers around the lack of trust with which leaders are viewed by their followers. It's important to understand why this is the case, given the economic benefits that trust may impart to an organization. These include` higher morale, increased loyalty to the organization, more delegation of authority, and greater assurance in transacting business faster and cheaper. I say may, because there is surprisingly little hard evidence to support these assumptions.
Trust may facilitate the implementation of strategy. Doesn't it stand to reason that if levels of trust between employees and their managers, or the organization in general, are low, it will be more difficult to implement anything-policies, practices, and eventually strategies of which they are a part? This appeared to be confirmed by data that I collected for my most recent book. For example, only 30 percent to 69 percent of employees agreed with the statement, "In my office, management is trusted," in the organizations I studied. That strikes me as a pretty wide and low range of levels of agreement. The numbers coincided with the financial performance of each organization, by the way. But my data base was not sufficiently large to be definitive.
The issue seems to be important enough to warrant effort on the part of managers. But what kind of effort? On what should they concentrate? Several things come to mind.
It would seem that trust is engendered by the process of setting and meeting expectations. That is, don't set an expectation that can't be met. Knowledge sharing would seem to foster trust as well. Other research suggests that trust may be associated with managers who hire, recognize, and fire the right people. At an organizational level, an aversion to letting people go in bad times may be associated with higher levels of trust. In sum, perhaps we're talking about a "no surprises" approach to management. But again, this is all very conditional because there is not much good data on which to base a conclusion.
If these hypotheses regarding trust in organizations are anywhere near the mark, it suggests that building trust is not rocket science. It should be pretty simple, in fact. Don't create expectations that can't be met; share knowledge; hire, recognize, and fire the right people; be consistent and predictable; and avoid large-scale layoffs as much as possible.
If that's the case, why do I find such a wide range of trust when I go into the field? Am I looking at the wrong organizations? Is this something you've experienced or observed as well? Why is trust so hard to achieve in management? What do you think?
To Read More:
Chris Argyris, Integrating the Individual and the Organization (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1964)
Ron McCoy, Ed., The Best of Deming (SPC Press, 1994).
Helen Rosethorn, The Employer Brand: Keeping Faith with the Deal (Farnham, UK: Gower, 2009)
Leonard A. Schlesinger and Jeffrey Zornitsky, "Job Satisfaction, Service Capability, and Customer Satisfaction," Human Resource Planning, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 141-149.