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Building Employee Trust

February 25, 2020 • Paul Woolf

A common phrase we hear a few months into football season is that the coach of a struggling team has “lost the locker room.” It’s clear that “losing the locker room”—or losing players’ trust and respect—is a big deal. The same is true with virtually every business. If you “lose the locker room,” you’re sunk. If colleagues don’t trust and respect their leaders, it’s nearly impossible to get them to help you achieve personal or organizational goals.

So how do you avoid “losing the locker room,” and how do your organization’s experience and history help?

Trust Dimensions

This is a photograph of Southwest Airlines Heart One logo. Several people are placing their hands on it. It symbolizes integrity, dependability, and competence.
Brands with the highest employee engagement have the trust of their employees. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Keller

The phrase “trust me” is overused. If you need to say it, you probably don’t deserve it. However, trust is not a one-dimensional attribute. Getting employees to trust their employer comes down to three dimensions of trust, according to James E. Grunig and  Linda Childers Hon:

  • Integrity: The belief that an organization is fair and just
  • Dependability: The belief that an organization will do what it says it will do
  • Competence: The belief that an organization has the ability to do what it says it will do

Let’s explore each dimension of trust.

Integrity

Instilling a belief that an organization is fair and just is hugely dependent on what the organization has done in the past: Actions speak louder than words. Most organizations will have HR policies and communications that explain expected employee and employer behaviors. However, integrity goes far beyond having policies and pronouncements and depends on actual behavior on a consistent basis. According to a study by Fred Kiel, companies with high-integrity CEOs achieved a five times higher rate of return on assets, and 26 percent higher employee engagement. Integrity pays.

If an organization’s people have behaved with integrity for an extended period of time, using, elevating and continuously reinforcing examples of that behavior can help reinforce the importance of integrity. It can prove both educational and uplifting.

But how do you deal with a situation where a company’s people did not behave with integrity in the past? There are basically two options: Ignore it, or address it head on. With social media and other tools readily available to highlight integrity missteps, past or present, it’s probably unwise to opt for the “ignore it and it will go away” option. Addressing it head on is usually the best bet. For example, as my colleague Johannes Steffens wrote, Wells Fargo lost credibility over the mis-selling scandal a few years ago, a costly mistake. Its approach to rectifying the missteps involved leveraging its history in a marketing campaign: showing its track record of doing the right thing, acknowledging where it had slipped, and committing to returning to the integrity and trust the brand enjoyed in the past.

Dependability

This is a photograph of History Factory's employees outside one of the original office buildings. The company visited the original location to commemorate it's 40th anniversary.
History Factory’s dependable track record over the last 40 years was highlighted during our 40th anniversary celebrations.

Dependability is essential to trust. However, of the three dimensions, dependability is probably the most reliant on history, because you clearly cannot be viewed as dependable in a particular sphere if you’ve never done that thing before. It’s also true that other factors can outweigh dependability when it comes to perception.

For example, a company pursuing its first acquisition has no track record of successful integration of acquisitions. For both companies, dependability is subordinate to integrity and competence, which can be proved in other areas. A company with a history of treating employees competently and with integrity does not need to worry too much about being seen as a dependable acquiring company.

Competence

This is a photograph of Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber, who began engaging the public to rebuild trust after the previous CEO resigned following scandals that impacted their credibility and reputation.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

Employees are more likely to trust you if they know you can follow through on your promises. A track record of follow-through helps, but even if the organization is a startup that’s still trying to gain employees’ trust, competence can help. In the case of a startup, competence relies on showing the history of its leaders and their own track record. It is why serial entrepreneurs point to their business triumphs when building a startup.

In 2017, Uber was shook to the core by negative publicity about its work environment, resulting in the resignation of CEO and founder Travis Kalanick. The company earned a reputation as a less than great place to work.

Enter Uber’s white knight, former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who was chosen for his track record of success, particularly when it came to  gender equality. Khosrowshahi has restructured Uber’s board and taken other measures to promote gender equality and respect among coworkers.

Khosrowshahi successfully guided Uber to the third-largest IPO in 2019 at $8.1 billion. While the company still has a way to go, Khosrowshahi’s background and actions helped restore a level of trust in the organization.

One more ingredient

This is a photograph of two employees receiving a custom gift from a company.

Organizations that act with integrity and fulfill promises have a good start toward earning and keeping employees’ trust. However, transparency is also a critical factor, particularly as it relates to recruiting and retaining millennial employees. Even when it comes to bad news, transparency can help mollify detractors.

Regaining the locker room

The challenge with gaining someone’s trust is that it takes time or, as in the case of Uber, an overwhelming amount of evidence that someone is trustworthy. Your company’s past can prove its integrity, competence and dependability. Digging deep and finding evidence of trustworthiness can help earn employees’ trust today. History Factory specializes in uncovering these stories and telling them in a way that people remember and repeat. These powerful stories can help leaders “hold the locker room” every day.

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