Oswald Letter

Employee Trust: Going, Going, Gone!

Trust. Webster’s defines it as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; or one in which confidence is placed.”

Based on this definition, how many of us would say that the average employee trusts senior management? Not many. In fact, research shows that less than half of all employees trust senior management. And when asked about the CEO specifically, only 28% of employees believe that CEOs are a credible source of information.

Nearly three out of four employees think the CEO is a liar! Is ‘liar’ too strong of a word? If someone is NOT considered a credible source of information, it means people don’t believe that they’re speaking the truth. If you’re not speaking the truth, you’re lying — and, therefore, a liar.

How did executives get to this level of distrust with employees? They did it the old-fashioned way — they earned it. Senior executives have been chipping away at employee trust for years, but in the last decade or so, we’ve really worked hard to demolish any level of trust placed in us by employees. In 2001, we had the debacle at Enron that cost thousands of employees their jobs and retirement savings. In short order, we followed up with the convictions of members of the Rigas family, who ran Adelphia Communications, and Dennis Kozlowski, CEO of Tyco International. But if that wasn’t enough, we threw in the recent problems at AIG, Bank of America, and Chrysler (to name a few) just for good measure. It’s a wonder that employees have any trust at all left for senior management.

But how do leaders lead without trust?

They can’t. As Warren Bennis so aptly put it, “Leadership without mutual trust is a contradiction in terms.” If our senior executives don’t have the trust of their employees, then they cannot lead the organization. You can’t just appoint yourself a leader. To be a leader you must have followers. And if only one in every four of your employees actually trusts you, then you don’t have many followers. It’s hard enough to be a leader when the majority of employees are willing to trust your character and abilities. When a majority DON’T trust you, it’s impossible.

So can members of the C-suite regain employees’ trust? If they haven’t done something specific to discourage employees from trusting them, I believe they can change things, but it won’t be easy. Here are five things CEOs can do to regain their credibility:

  1. Communicate honestly. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Then why do so many executives fail this critical first step? Employees aren’t stupid. If you lie to them, they’ll figure it out pretty quickly and then you’re done. You’ve flushed your credibility down the toilet. Tell employees the truth, even if it means admitting you’re wrong, you don’t know the answer, or you’ve made a mistake. People don’t expect you to know everything, but they do expect — and deserve — the truth. Make sure you tell it.
  2. Respect your employees. This is one I’m sure your mother taught you. Put another way, treat others as you expect to be treated. Employees aren’t second-class citizens. They’re the ones who make your business what it is. Without them, you don’t even have a business. Respect them for who they are, what they do, and what they contribute to your enterprise. If you don’t respect your people, they won’t respect you.
  3. Be transparent. You don’t have to hide behind some veil of secrecy. I’m reminded of the scene in the movie the Wizard of Oz, when Toto pulled back the curtain to reveal that the “great Oz” was really a kindly old gentleman who was putting on airs that he was something much more. In the end, it didn’t matter to Dorothy and her friends that he was a mere mortal because he was able to truly help them. To do their jobs effectively, employees need to know what is going on in the organization. CEOs who think that they’re the only ones with answers are missing out on a treasure chest of great ideas. Let people know what the challenges in the business are, and they’ll help you solve them.
  4. Be loyal. I think we’ve established that people are unlikely to follow someone they don’t trust. Well if they don’t think you’ll be loyal to them, why would they trust you with their loyalty? It’s a two-way street. Sometimes loyalty means sacrificing short-term profit for long-term gains. Especially in tough times, you need to have the courage of your convictions and demonstrate your loyalty to your employees. If you keep your commitments consistently, people will reward you with their loyalty.
  5. Listen. This is a tough one for many executives. They think they need to talk to demonstrate their position of authority. Great leaders understand that you must win the hearts and minds of the people you want to follow you. That begins by listening. You can’t lead your employees if you don’t know what they want and need to do their jobs. You need to show understanding and even empathy for them if you want them to trust, respect, and follow you. Stop and listen to the questions before providing all the answers!

Trust is critical for any relationship to be successful, and the one between management and employees is no different. Gaining the trust of your employees, whether you need to win over the majority or just a few, is not an easy task, but it can be done. You must make sure that every single day you communicate openly and honestly with employees, that you treat your people with respect, you listen to them, and are loyal to them. If you can do all of these things consistently, you will capture their hearts and minds.