What to Do When Trust With Your Employees Breaks Down

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Feb 28, 2011

By Vanessa Hall

In a perfect world, your employees will always trust you and your organization.

In spite of your best efforts, though, trust can and will erode. That’s the bad news. The good news is you can recover. How do you rebuild trust?

  1. Communicate openly. Talk about the situation. Describe any mistakes you’ve made, what you’ve learned from those mistakes, and what you’ll do in the future. Don’t be afraid to share bad news and to admit mistakes. Explain the rationale behind decisions you’ve made, and encourage employees to give input and feedback on decisions you make. Most importantly, accept feedback with grace and act professionally at all times. Rebuilding trust takes time. The old cliché “It takes ten pats on the back to overcome one kick in the rear” is especially true when you’ve lost the trust of your employees.
  2. Make changes based on employee input. Listen to your employees and implement good suggestions. Some managers are hesitant to act on employee input because they feel all the ideas should be theirs. Great managers realize they don’t have all the answers. What matters most is that you make positive changes; it doesn’t matter where the ideas for those changes come from. Employees who know you’ll listen and act on their ideas will regain their trust in you.
  3. Make sure your employees fully understand your expectations. In order for employees to be effective, they have to know what their job is and how to do their job. Employees who make mistakes will often blame their manager for not setting clear expectations, and as a result, they will lose trust in that manager. While that may not seem fair, it’s also a fact of life: most of us are initially defensive when we make a mistake. Setting clear expectations not only helps employees perform better but also creates an environment of trust.
  4. Hold employees accountable. If you’ve made a mistake that eroded trust, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold your employees accountable for their mistakes. Rewarding high performers and holding poor performers accountable through discipline and termination builds an environment of trust.
  5. “Cast the right shadow.” Employees look to their managers to set the tone for the organization; they expect the company leaders to lead in word and in action. What you say and do as a manager is important; how you say and do things is critical, too, because your team will scrutinize everything you do, especially if trust has been broken. By being a great role model and constantly casting the right shadow, you set an example for your employees to follow, and they’ll also place their trust in you.

I’d like to specifically highlight two areas here.

The first is the concept of seeking feedback from employees and engaging them, through surveys and other means, in the direction of the business. One of the things I have seen time and time again in companies is the well-meaning employee opinion survey followed by . . . nothing!

I once worked for an organization that conducted such a survey, and the months went by with no communication of the results. When I quizzed my manager on it, he admitted that the results were so bad that senior management decided not to release them!

Why bother asking if you are not going to do anything about it? One of the things I tell people who look at doing the Entente Trust Survey is that they have to promise they will take action on the areas showing low levels of trust. If the commitment is not there, I tell them not to bother, and cer- tainly not to do the survey. I certainly don’t want my name associated with a “survey that didn’t work.”

What happens when a company surveys its employees?

  1. It creates expectations that, since it is asking for employees’ opinions, it will do something as a result. When nothing happens, the expectation is not met.
  2. An implicit promise is made along the same lines, unless it is clearly stated that the only reason for the survey is to see how the company measures up against its competitors (which is the reality in many cases).
  3. The need for respect is met in conducting the survey, but then it is not met when the opinions are not listened to.

The communication surrounding the survey needs to be managed very well so that expectations about what is likely to happen, and when, are managed properly. The best thing to do is get everyone involved. When you release the results, get your people involved in determining the best solutions and ways of improving the areas that rated poorly. As was demonstrated in the Fantastic Furniture story, everyone has something of value to add, if you just listen.

The second thing I want to point out is the comment about disciplining underperforming employees.

We’ve all seen it. The couple of people who have been slack and not pulled their weight, or the people who got the job done but left a trail of destruction in their wake. When these people are rewarded just like everyone else, it blows all the good things the leaders might have done before.

I was at a breakfast not that long ago and someone told a story about how the manager had bought a few books of movie vouchers to give out as rewards throughout the year. One day she checked them and realized that they were, unfortunately, about to expire that week. As a result, she gave them out to all the staff. All the staff. That is not reward and recognition. That’s poor management.

There is a fine line between equity and fairness in the workplace, between reward and recognition for performance. If you build a performance-based system, stick to it. By having the system, you have created expectations and have made promises — some explicit and some implicit — about how people will be treated.

It does take courage to be able to give constructive feedback to an employee who is underperforming, but I can guarantee that the rest of your people will be watching you like a hawk to see that it is done, and they will trust you more for it. It meets their needs for security and for fairness and respect.

Excerpted from The Truth About Truth in Business by Vanessa Hall. Copyright  © 2009 Vanessa Hall. Published by the Emerald Book Company, Austin, TX. Reprinted with permission.