What Building Trust with Employees Takes in 2019 | Bonfyre

What Building Trust with Employees Takes in 2019 | Bonfyre Breakdown

7 min

Conventional wisdom for building trust with employees tells us that people have general criteria they need met before putting faith in company leaders.

As our own Rob Seay wrote for us, the core of these criteria comes down to the relationships between employee and employer. Generally speaking, employees want to know what they have in common with their leaders (the local ones, and the top brass), and want to build bonds with them in whatever way they can. Moreover, when they have these interactions, employees expect leaders to be authentic and sincere, and they expect transparency and consistency in their behaviors over time.

These criteria are couched in our emotional needs, but they’re not the only things that impact building trust with employees. The rate at which the world changes frequently causes shifts in global trust trends. In other words, whom we trust and why we trust them can change in response to factors outside the company. From changes to our local communities to global political events, these all can have a material impact on how people put their trust in key institutions.

It’s for this reason that the marketing and communications firm Edelman created the Edelman Trust Barometer to track changes in these trust trends.

The Edelman Trust Barometer measures global perceptions of trust across several key domains: business, media, government, NGOs, and “my employer.” In the business world, this report is particularly popular with HR and internal communications audiences, who apply the study’s findings to engagement, communications, and culture strategies.

In this installment of the Bonfyre Breakdown, we’ll primarily be discussing the Trust at Work section of the recently released 2019 report. We strongly encourage you read the full 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer report if you wish to learn more about how trust is trending in the other domains listed. You can also read about Edelman’s survey and analysis methods in the report’s appendix.

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Why should we care about building trust with employees?

Employee engagement is the centerpiece of the last 20 years worth of conversations about motivation and performance in the business world. Engagement happens when employees unlock their performance potential to go the extra mile in their work. It’s the result of five core emotions’ presence in the workplace: Trust, Altruism, Belonging, Happiness, and Achievement. But of the five, trust is the most essential.

It may be cynical to think that we don’t need to trust our coworkers to do our jobs, but this sentiment informs a “Do whatever it takes to get the job done” leadership philosophy that’s far more pervasive than it should be. The problem is while work may “get done,” the absence of trust takes an emotional toll on employees. If employees can’t trust their peers, they’ll spend more time over-analyzing passive aggressive interactions and defensive behaviors, and less time engaging and innovating in their work.

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer illustrates the link between engagement and building trust with employees. Per the report, 71% of employees who trust their employer exhibit engagement behaviors.

But that’s not all. When employees trust their employer, they’re also more likely to engage in company advocacy, loyalty, and commitment behaviors.

  • 78% of employees who trust their employer engage in advocacy
  • 74% of employees who trust their employer engage in company loyalty
  • 83% of employees who trust their employer engage in commitment behaviors

Trust is the line drawn between employees who engage in these behaviors and those who do not. For every behavior category, employees who do not trust their employer are less likely to engage by a margin of at least 30 percentage points. Hence why building trust with employees is so essential to business strategy. Without trust, you can still have loyal, committed, and engaged employees, but the likelihood of it happening is incredibly small.

Fortunately, one of the biggest findings Edelman is touting this year is an increase in trust for employers. Seventy-five percent of the people surveyed by Edelman say they trust “my employer.” In fact, respondents have more trust in “my employer” than any of the other institutions Edelman tracks–government, NGOs, media, and business.

So with trust high in employers, engagement should be easy to build in the workforce, right? Not quite, there is a catch. Trust in employers may be trending high, but the same cannot be said of CEOs. In fact, CEOs and board members are some of the least trusted figures in businesses.

Only 47% of Edelman respondents rated CEOs as “very/extremely credible,” while 44% rated board of directors members the same way. The further down you go on the organizational chart, however, the more trustworthy people become. Sixty-five percent of respondents felt company technical experts were highly credible, and 53% rated regular employees the same.

The data illustrates a fundamental gap in trust between the executives who dictate company strategy and the employees intended to execute it. To close the distance, executive leaders will need to strike a new agreement with employees if they want trusted partners serving the company mission.

Related:: Avoid These 3 Behaviors That Erode Organizational Trust

The new contract for building trust with employees

The Trust at Work section of Edelman’s report also briefly lays out what it calls the “new employer-employee contract” for building trust with employees, which is broken out into four items:

  1. Lead Change
  2. Empower Employees
  3. Start Locally
  4. CEO Leadership

The content of the “contract” in the report is sparse; there are just a handful of bullet points underneath adding flavor. Luckily, we’ve got thoughts on what each one of these items means for building trust with employees.

1. Lead Change

Organizational change is a common occurrence in the business world. Because of this, it is imperative that leaders build out their competencies for preserving employee trust while communicating change as it happens. What Edelman calls out in this area is to address “concerns about the personal impact of change.”

The most important question employees want answered about change is “How does this affect me?” Only the people spearheading change (typically leaders and change agents) have the answers to that question. If they don’t provide answers, employees will do their jobs for them.

Employees will fill in the absence of information with educated guesses, rumors, and conjecture. They’re not intentionally trying to spread bad information, but they do need some information–preferably substantive information–to keep them going and “in-the-know” while they get over the change curve. Hence why some information is almost always better than radio silence.

A while back, we spoke to Shawn Schukar, President of Ameren Transmission and a leader with more than 30 years experience in change management strategies. He emphasized that answering the “Whys” was crucial for building trust with employees and leading change success.

“Where I have seen change be successful is when you do a good job communicating and helping people understand the why, how it impacts them and what it means down the road,” Schukar says. “If you can’t do that, it is not going to be successful.”

2. Empower Employees

One of Bonfyre CEO Mark Sawyier’s favorite expressions is “You’ve got to give trust to get trust.” When it comes to building trust with employees, sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and give employees a platform to speak their truth.

In this part of the contract, Edelman calls out the need to “give employees a voice,” and we’re inclined to agree. In organizations where trust is the norm, employees are empowered to share what’s important to them on everything from daily operations to high-level company strategy.

This high-trust tactic pays dividends in the back end, too. There’s a large body of academic research that correlates empowering employee voices with positive business outcomes. The Investors in People blog has helpfully compiled much of this research with brief summaries and links for reference.

The long-short of it is that empowering employee voices drives improvements in decision-making, learning, diversity, employer branding, and more. If you haven’t been building trust with employees, chances are the voices that could provide valuable improvements in these areas haven’t been empowered to speak up.

3. Start Locally

Edelman explains this tactic as building out company initiatives to improve “societal conditions in the local communities in which you operate.” What we find interesting about this tactic is the buck doesn’t stop at building trust with employees.

This tactic is actually a rock-solid engagement approach that plays up the importance of employees’ desires for meaningful work and a sense of purpose. What’s more, research shows it’s particularly effective for workers in factory and industrial settings–an employee segment that’s notoriously difficult to reach and engage.

Gallup research shows only about one-third of the U.S. workforce believes their company’s mission or purpose makes them feel their job is important. But the percentage of manufacturing and construction workers who agree with that sentiment is 10 percentage points lower than U.S. workers overall. Gallup senior consultant Denise Delahanty found that to build trust and engagement for this population, taking on a local mission that benefits the surrounding community will get the job done.

“Ultimately, leaders must recognize that the mission that matters most to factory workers is the local one,” Delahanty writes. “Let that mission be about whatever is most important to the people who work there. You’ll find it’s almost always about keeping the doors open and the community healthy.”

4. CEO Leadership

We’ve spilled gallons of digital ink explaining the importance of CEO and executive leadership involvement in just about everything: engagement and culture, employee experience, and building trust with employees.

We’re not going to belabor it too much more here, but it’s always important to have an understanding of the central role leaders play in these operations. Edelman calls out the importance of leaders being visible and displaying personal commitment “inside and outside the organization.”

Larry Senn’s shadow of a leader theory is perhaps the best lens for understanding why this matters.

Senn’s theory states that, over time, organizations inherit the characteristics of their leaders. To put it another way, the actions and attitudes executive leaders take “cast a shadow” over the organization’s lower levels, modeling what behaviors for success looks like in the company’s ecosystem. If leaders model themselves as trustworthy, managers and employees further down the organizational chart will be inclined to not only “inherit” trustworthiness, but also put their trust in the leaders where it originated.

Per Edelman’s data about CEOs often being the least trusted figures in their organizations, harnessing the power of the leaders’ shadow may just be the best way for building trust with employees. Again, you have to give trust to get trust. 

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