(Re)building a Foundation of Trust

Miraculous results occur when people really trust that leaders are both truly concerned about them and are competent.

How can you build trust where cynicism and low morale abound? And why bother? After all, some self-styled "tough" leaders argue that trust is overrated; people are being paid to do their jobs and should do so to the best of their abilities. Why all this "soft" talk about developing trust, which is, at best, intangible and difficult to quantify?

That's a good contention if all a leader realistically expects is for workers to physically show up at work. But being "present" doesn't necessarily equate to being highly productive--or safe. Too many perform like "D" students, merely going through minimal motions to do what they have to to get by; seemingly, their main acquired skill is covering themselves. Worse, others are pointedly disaffected and have been actively transformed into self-styled vigilantes who are sabotaging organizational ambitions. According to Gallup’s Jim Harter, chief scientist, Workplace Management and Well-being, "52 percent of the workforce are not engaged, with another 18 percent that are actively disengaged, and these are people that are working against the organization’s objectives." (emphasis is mine) So approximately one in five workers are enraged, rather than engaged, torpedoing leaders' and co-workers' efforts toward smooth and effective functioning.

I've heard such "tough" leaders grumble about the quality of current work ethic, or how older or younger generations are deficient, or about terrible market conditions or lack of support or any other factor they can't control. Their attention and efforts seem directed toward complaining and blaming, rather than improving. By doing so, such leaders are victimizing themselves, acknowledging between the lines that they have little power to catalyze desired changes.

But leaders who are truly committed to performance instead look at the impact of their own actions. This isn't just wishful thinking; I've seen many strong leaders make significant gains in stemming the bleeding-away of trust or even of winning the uphill battle of turning around the diminished confidence of a disillusioned workforce.

Trust is critical to engagement, receptivity to change, and leadership, all of which are essential high performance ingredients. According to organizational psychologist Jack Gibb (with whom I was fortunate enough to work closely for several years), trust forms the foundation for all relationships--from personal ones in a family to worker-management to organization-vendor to company-customer. But, regrettably, both from experience and in studies I've read, the trust link in many relationships seems to have corroded.

Trust is relatively easy to damage or destroy, harder to build and hardest to rebuild. As in construction, it's faster and easier to demolish a building than it is to erect it. And a deconstruction site littered with debris of broken brick and glass has to first be cleared prior to rebuilding a new structure.

Think of two types of trust: Intent and Competence. The first basically means, "Do I trust you to have my interests at heart and protect me?" Too many workers report feeling lied to, taken advantage of, having their safety and health placed in jeopardy, to further someone else's narrow objectives. Where valid, this is shortsighted; eventually people see through false friends.

The second type of trust, Competence, refers to, "Do I believe you have the power and ability to get done what you say you’re going to do?" Many managers and professionals undercut trust by overpromising what they can effectively accomplish in a given timespan.

While any curative prescription for elevating trust has to be customized to an organization's history and condition, here are 15 generally effective keys leaders can put into place:

1. Admit and clearly communicate what's within your direct control vs. what requires the approval of others.

2. Always present a balanced view. Clearly show the potential advantages and downsides of any considered change (explaining how the chosen change has more upsides than downsides).

3. When instituting less-desirable changes (that look like takeaways), fully explain the reasons for this: how times have changed, how even if this is not an ideal option it is better than the alternative (e.g., of laying people off).

4. Develop incentives structures that don't over-reward a few to the point of undervaluing many others or that actually encourage hiding or under-reporting problems.

5. Express concern as a first statement after any negative event, accident, or loss.

6. Emphasize making personal contact with people, rather than communicating with them as being interchangeable or regrettably-necessary-for-now units.

7. Abolish know-it-all mentality and expressions.

8. Graciously give credit to others for their contributions, even relatively small ones.

9. Make appropriate apologies (might clear first with Legal the best way to do so, but don't allow them to stifle everything).

10. Communicate even interim changes rather than waiting for all issues to be fully settled.

11. Listen-listen-listen. Don't wait for issues to come to you; sincerely seek out and sample others' concerns.

12. Praise publicly, discipline privately. Begin by disciplining yourself to overcome the impulse to emotionally erupt at others.

13. Do what you say you're going to do (keep notes) and get back to others in a timely manner.

14. Exemplify leadership--do what you expect of others rather than broadcasting, "These rules don't apply to me."

15. Go beyond superficial only-criticizing or only-praising modes. Give balanced feedback that focuses on improvement rather than finding fault.

Miraculous results occur when people really trust that leaders are both truly concerned about them and are competent. Trust is certainly not the only ingredient in attaining high performance, but it's a critical foundation--and without this base, little else can be built. And leaders can go a long way toward forming, rebuilding, and reinforcing stronger trust.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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