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.
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.”
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.
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
Want to read more? Download the white paper 'Vertrouwen: De sleutel tot goed werkgeverschap' by Great Place to Work Netherlands. (Dutch only)