Hallmarks of eroding trust and how to avoid it

Australian business leaders have access to an array of research and commentary around how to foster trust in the workplace, yet common mistakes prevail.

The latest research from leadership and development firm Forum highlighted the common mistakes leaders make that erode trust with their employees.

Almost 1,000 business leaders were surveyed on their attitudes around trust, apologising and engagement. Not surprisingly it was found that trust and maximising business productivity go hand and hand.

A so-called ‘trust gap’ frequently forms between leaders and employees, with employees rating trust almost twice as important as their leaders do.

Half of employees surveyed trusted their leaders to a ‘great’ or ‘very great’ extent (43.1 per cent), and nine out of 10 employees and leaders (97 per cent) recognised that having a leader they can trust is very important.

“Levels of trust impact directly on productivity and staff retention, so it is vital that Australian business leaders recognise how to build trust with their staff and how to avoid the common pitfalls. When we asked employees about mistakes their leaders make, we found the same themes coming up again and again, from inconsistency to talking behind employees’ backs and even lying,” Cynthia Stuckey, managing director of Forum in Asia-Pacific said.

From these common issues, Forum named the top ways leaders can build trust with their employees:

1. Act with integrity: Being open and transparent is one of the most important traits a good leader could have. One of the major complaints heard from employees was a lack of transparency and/or lying. An example given was of a leader advising two employees that they were being developed for the same position. This not only shows a disregard for the individuals concerned, but also shows a naivety in thinking that employees don’t speak to each other. If employees feel they are being deceived, they are likely to lose faith in the company and ultimately become less productive.

2. Listen and demonstrate care: 
Poor communication and interpersonal skills was another common complaint. Not listening to employees and those working closest to the customer makes them feel undervalued. Leaders should never underestimate the insight that can be offered by employees who actually interact with customers.

3. “Walk the Talk”: Leaders should exhibit the behaviour and attitude they expect from their employees. Sixth on the list of employee annoyances was of leaders asking employees to do things that they themselves won’t do. Leaders shouldn’t expect employees to work late or do unpleasant tasks if they regularly leave on time and consistently delegate all the less-desirable tasks to other people.

4. Demonstrate trust and empowerment: Empowering staff doesn’t necessarily mean giving them more authority, but rather making them feel strongly and positively about the organisation by not undermining them. One example that can make employees feel undermined is when leaders complain about other team members. While the leader may think that they are confiding in an employee and building a rapport with them, in reality the employee can wonder whether the leader talks about them in the same way. Trust should be demonstrated not through negativity but through positive enforcement.

5. Encourage and recognise hard work: Recognition is a vital part of building trust and respect. Employees told Forum that leaders consistently took praise for employees’ work and let their staff take the blame for their mistakes. The survey showed that only 2.3 per cent of employees felt their leaders always acknowledged their own mistakes. If an employee isn’t recognised for their input, they won’t see their progression path and will have no reason to stay.

6. Provide clear and consistent messages/vision: Being inconsistent was the most quoted complaint from employees. Any lack of consistency between what was said and what was done will quickly lead to employee disengagement. One example provided was when leaders talk about team and participation but lead in a directive, hierarchical style.

7. Give constructive feedback/coaching: Coaching must not be seen as a one-way street. It means not only providing feedback (both good and bad), but also following through on commitments and holding both parties responsible for any necessary improvements or changes.

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