Behind every committed employee is a solid foundation of trust

Managers hold the key to success

Companies aim to have committed employees, and rightly so. A satisfied employee is one thing, but a truly committed employee is quite another. The latter is also willing and motivated to go the extra mile, help shape changes, attend additional training courses etc. HR departments are therefore focusing fully on this commitment, pulling out all the stops. “We see a lot of great initiatives and good intentions”, explains Kristien Van Bruystegem, who conducts research at Vlerick Business School on the factors that make a company a great place to work. “However, many companies skip one step. According to the Great Place to Work philosophy, trust is the absolute basic condition to forge commitment. Trust in the management team results in greater commitment, which, in turn, leads to higher productivity levels and lower absenteeism rates”, she continues.

Keep refilling the reservoir

Commitment tends to fluctuate – a slight decrease can be followed by an increase and vice-versa. Trust, on the other hand, must be constantly nurtured by the company, Kristien explains. “Every organisation has what we can define as a ‘trust reservoir’, which sometimes leaks. You need to try to patch up all the leaks and refill the reservoir. At the moment, few companies are aware of the importance of trust. You can launch a hundred projects focusing on employee satisfaction, but if there is no trust, they will fade into oblivion”.

Kristien illustrates this with a concrete example. “Involvement also plays an important role in commitment. That’s why some companies have launched a platform where their employees can share their opinion. The problem is that if there is a lack of trust, few people will use this platform. Another issue is that when the company receives messages from its employees, it needs to do something with them and communicate about them. Needless to say, there is no need for total democracy. Employees do not necessarily want to have a say in policymaking, but they do want a say in matters that have a direct impact on their job. If companies fail to properly deal with feedback or if they head in the opposite direction, they lose their employees’ trust.”

A tree with many branches

If there is a climate of trust, people will not only adopt a more open approach, they will also complete tasks without asking too many questions. They will assume that their colleagues or managers would never ask them to do anything unnecessary. “At such companies, it is less common to put people in cc when sending e-mails”, Kristien adds.

On the other hand, when there is little or no trust, the entire corporate structure is affected. Kristien compares this to a disease ravaging a person’s entire body. “If a new employee hears all sorts of negative stories from day one, he is not given the time and space to form his own positive opinion. Likewise, not taking heed of frustrations that may initially seem quite insignificant can cause them to escalate into far more serious problems.”

In a nutshell, trust is beneficial to the company’s entire immune system, protecting it even when the going gets tough from an economic point of view. Companies that deal with redundancies in an open, respectful and credible manner can also have a positive effect on the remaining staff, and by extension even on those required to step down. The latter then continue to be positive ambassadors for the organisation.

What is a climate of trust and, perhaps more importantly, how can it be achieved?

Trust is a somewhat abstract concept that is difficult to define. However, a step-by-step approach can give it a more concrete meaning.

First and foremost, it is important for a company to launch several initiatives, such as mentors for new employees or a clear and transparent training policy.

Secondly, these practices need to be supported at all levels in the organisation and they must be implemented in the same way across all departments. “Everything must be streamlined. The same values should apply to all contacts and activities. Words and deeds must be consistent. All of this should be implemented at all levels, starting from the management. This credibility is essential to create a climate of trust. After all, you can’t expect your staff to promote certain values if the CEO fails to do so”, Kristien says.

And thirdly, the methods used are also important. “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”, said a famous jazz song from the late 1930s. In this case, the managers are the lead singers. Kristien believes they can really make the difference. All managers should be aware of the impact their behaviour has on the employees. Open feedback is very important in this view. Moreover, many companies are putting people management and expertise on the same level. That being said, people managers must enjoy the necessary support within the company so as to better fulfil their tasks.

Kristien also says managers should get to know their team members very well. “Not everyone likes to be praised in front of a large audience. For some people, this turns a positive event into a stressful experience. And of course, that is not the way to earn their trust. Nevertheless, prizes and rewards should not take centre stage. A personal approach, time and patience are far more important. If the manager is playing with his smartphone during a meeting or assessment instead of listening attentively, the employee gets the feeling he is not important.” However, Kristien stresses that this goes both ways. A manager should put trust in his employees, but these employees must also be worthy of the trust they are given. It should be a mutual gift. After all, if you receive more than you were expecting, you tend to give more back.

There is no such thing as a ready-made solution. Some things may work well in one company, but fail when replicated in another. The main aim is to create a corporate culture where trust is key. There are various ways to put this into practice, but according to Kristien, there is one common denominator, “repeat, repeat, repeat, because building trust is a long-term project. Some initiatives may be rather unsuccessful at first, but with some time and effort they can turn into success. An example: if no one shows up at an informal breakfast session with the CEO, that shouldn’t keep you from organising a second session.”

Tips & tricks

  • Get to know your team. As a manager, you should know your people through and through. Only then can you create a long-term relationship of trust.
  • Ensure your staff feel good. Tell them good morning, sincerely ask how they are feeling or pay them a compliment. Pay attention to them during meetings and let go of your computer or smartphone for a minute while you are dealing with them.
  • Team meetings are a good way to work on trust too. Ensure scheduled meetings actually do take place, make enough time for meetings and don’t postpone them. Ask everyone to send their agenda in advance and let several people take turns in organising or chairing meetings. That boosts their personal development and creates better group dynamics.
  • Ensure an efficient communication flow. Don’t forget to communicate, explain your decisions and sell your message well, otherwise it may seem as if nothing is happening.
  • Involve the team in the awarding of employees who have been in service for a given number of years. Join forces to come up with a personal gift rather than the usual bottle of champagne.
  • Treat people as they want to be treated, which is not necessarily the way you want to be treated.
  • Put words into actions. Make fewer promises, but do keep all of them. When asking people for their opinion, take it into account or at least explain why something cannot be done.
  • If the atmosphere at the company or in the team has taken a hit, there are usually other underlying issues, such as a heavy workload, job insecurity etc. Don’t try to solve these problems simply with a party or a little extra. Your intentions may be good, but people cannot be bought over. Moreover, in those cases, the core of the problem persists.
  • Show respect and treat all people as equals. If you allow one person to sit back and relax all day, you will lose the others’ trust.
  • When sending out e-mails, only put people in cc if it is really necessary. Trying to cover your back does not inspire trust.
  • Treat your staff as if they were working on a voluntary basis, even if this is not the case.

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