Faces of HR

Good HR Is Like Good Relationships: It’s All About Trust

The importance of trust between employers and employees cannot be overstated, and it works much the same as trust works within personal relationships. Creating initial trust and maintaining it take a lot of work but not as much work as regaining the trust of a hurt partner or, in this case, a group of employees. That is something that today’s interviewee knows all too well.

Meet the exuberant and brilliant Valerie Grubb, or Val for short. Val is an author and a speaker who operates a training firm called Val Grubb and Associates. She specializes in elevating managers from tactical thinking to strategic leadership.

Where do you see HR’s future given the pandemic?

I do think it has been HR’s time to shine, to be quite honest, because this is like the Wild West, right? Nothing’s ever prepared companies for this—to have to change on a dime.

I do think it’s been a great opportunity for HR people to really step up to the plate and manage employees’ mental health, along with the physicality of where people are and beyond. Having gone through 9/11 in New York, I can say it wasn’t even this crazy. HR has to be really agile and pivot entire organizations.

It’s really been an opportunity for HR to step up its game and really show its chops.

Something I’ve noticed is that organizations have been forced to bring to the forefront a lot of the things that were sitting on the backburner. Would you agree?

Oh, I agree. Look at the whole idea of work from home, right? Employees have been asking for that for a long time. There are many things, but that certainly very much sticks out to me. And, it was always this issue of, “Oh, no, no. You can’t be more efficient. You won’t be as good. You won’t get the job done,” but that’s just not true.

The interesting thing is, we saw that right in the beginning because you really had to do a 90 degree overnight. Now, companies are talking about not going back to the office at all—or, at least, maybe making it 3 days a week or maybe some core hours, that kind of thing. So everyone is rethinking things. In that regard, I think that’s an exciting time. And, I think there are many things like that.

However, in my mind, that’s all about the management. If you can’t manage a remote workforce and manage the KPIs, that’s on your training, that’s on your leaders, and that’s on your managers.

The micromanagers of the world must have totally freaked out.

Thank God. It’s about time their workers are broken free of that torture. I think we’ll really see an opportunity for good managers to rise to the top. And hopefully, for the micromanagers, now it’s time to realize that and make some changes because that’s hard to do. Of course, you could still micromanage. I’m sure people find ways.

Yes. They’re getting very creative, actually.

Right. I read something in The Wall Street Journal when this first started; there’s technology that allows you to see how long your employees are on their computers and what sites they’re on and all of this. And I thought, “Wow, there’s a problem if you need that.”

Many people are still talking about it. I was just speaking with someone about why it’s a terrible idea the other day. Employee monitoring was always despicable to begin with and doesn’t engender trust in your employees. Most employers aren’t looking to take advantage of their workers. Of course, there are always going to be some. If you treat people like they are unreliable or bad actors, then you lose the critical and most important thing for success in a company: trust.

Which is trust, absolutely. Why would you manage to the few who aren’t doing their job? To me, that comes back to management. That comes back to the manager not being strong enough to establish goals and objectives and KPIs that the employee performs or doesn’t.

I remember everybody was concerned when Facebook came out. I was at Oxygen Media, and somebody in another department came in and said, “Suzie’s on Facebook.” And I’m like, “I don’t care. Suzie’s doing her job.” I expect Suzie to be available if we have an emergency after hours. So I don’t care, as long as she gets the job done.

If you have to monitor your employees, like I’ve said, you’ve got a much bigger issue about how you are training your managers.

Actually, that’s why I love what I have been doing more recently. I’ve been running my own company for the past 12 years, and when I first started, I was more into HR consulting. It was during the 2008 financial crisis, and I remember the world had cut down so drastically on people that all I was doing was solving problems.

Then, when things started getting better, about 4–5 years later, what I was noticing was that more people were asking for training. That’s really what I’ve been focused on, probably for the past 6 or so years: really hardcore training.

Tell me why you love that so much.

I love training. You can come in and really show somebody how to be a leader and how to get the best out of his or her people. As a manager and as a people leader, you have the ability to destroy somebody’s day. Or, you can come in and make the person a partner. That’s what I find so awesome about training; I can see when that light bulb goes on. I’m helping companies, and I’m helping employees by helping their managers be better people and better leaders. It’s exciting, I’ve got to admit.

I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of it. It’s been incredibly, incredibly rewarding. Again, I’m teaching a manager, but if he or she has 50 people reporting to him or her, I’m really helping 50 people. That’s what I think has been really exciting and kept me pretty fired up about things.

I wanted to get back to the trust issue. It seems to me that many organizations try to solve their people issues with more rules and regulations. But you can’t really fix the problems that a lack of trust hints at with rules and regulations.

Yeah because then you’ll get things like when United Airlines beat that guy up and pulled him off the plane. That’s in its policies and procedures that the airline could do that.

We’ve “policied” people so much instead of being a leader to them. I think policies should be more like guidelines. These are bumpers designed to help you in a crisis.

Absolutely.

I think we have a leadership crisis because in my mind, that’s where you get that lack of trust. That all starts at the top because it trickles down from there. In that regard, that’s why I focus on leadership and management. We need better leaders in order to come back from this.

Look at all of this unemployment, or let’s think about how many people are employed or the people who are retired in place or are not working in place. I think we can do better. I think we have to do better.

I never wanted to be a terrible leader. It’s something that requires constantly reading and thinking about what’s best and listening to employees, and it’s something I really believe in.

And I’m reading right now Daniel Goleman’s book on emotional intelligence again. I just read Ken Blanchard’s book on servant leadership. And, like I’ve said, it’s a really good book. I’m just thinking about that inverted pyramid of how your job as a leader is really to support everybody else. I’ve had 55 folks working for me at Oxygen Media, and I would quarterly ask, “What can I do to up my game, to be a better leader for you?”

Because if I’m doing something that’s driving you crazy, I want to know. In the beginning, everybody’s like, “Oh, nothing. Nothing.” And then finally, they say, “Well, you’re driving me crazy in this regard.” It’s like, “All right. Tell me what I can do differently. Tell me what I can do differently, and it’s not going to drive you crazy; I can get what I need, and we’ll fix this problem right now.”

And the great thing is that that circulates through the employees. An employee can walk out and say, “Holy cow, I just told Val that she sucks at this. And she came back and said, ‘Thank you for being brave and telling me that. Let’s figure out how I could stop doing that.’”

I remember with one of my employees we would be across a table from one another, and I could see her disengage. She would literally sit back, press her arms down, and give short answers, and I just said, “I am doing something that’s making you disengage. I can see it. I’m not doing it on purpose. I don’t, in fact, know what I’m doing. But, I really need you to tell me.” And, I said, “And, I can tell you that I’m going to thank you for telling me.”

She said it was because my voice is so strong. When I speak, I’m very passionate, so I get loud. My voice is forceful. She said, “I feel like you’re not listening to me. I feel like you’re overriding anything that I say.” And I said, “Gosh.” I said, “Thank you so much for telling me.” I said, “That’s not my intent. But, I can’t argue with the fact that that’s the impact it’s having.” I said, “So, I’ll think about it and be conscious.” I said, “You don’t have to say a word. Can you just give me a time-out signal that says ‘Back off now?’ And, I will not say a word, but I will immediately back off.” And she said, “I can do that. 100%.”

I’ll tell you, 2 months later, we never had an issue with it. We never had an issue because we got through by talking about this rough patch. We have to be open to that. It’s a dialogue. This isn’t my way or the highway. I think reading Blanchard’s book was a good reminder.

What if she hadn’t been brave? What if I had jumped on her and said, “Oh, you’re being a wimp,” or whatever? We would have lost a great employee. She was with me until the day we sold the company. And she now works at Google. Let me tell you, she’s a phenomenal employee. I could have blown that had I not really thought about what it means to be a leader and what she needed in a leader.

It’s a tricky thing because people look to you for the answers. You’re supposed to be the one who knows them all. And you are in charge. So, you have to find a way to have an ego but not an overbearing one, which, I think, is very tricky. You can’t really also be doubting and questioning yourself all the time either.

No, that doesn’t help at all.

So HR is often caught between that, but it can also be the flux that attaches leaders to its people.

So many business owners are out there just trying to sell. Or they may be focused on some aspects of the business, maybe the design or production.

An HR person can give you that perspective of how we can come in and enable our folks to be able to achieve the crazy dream you have in mind. I don’t know many business owners who are good at that. They’re good at sales, they’re good at raising money, or they’re good at creating something or designing something. If you’re using people to do all that, having somebody who’s focused on the people translating your vision and what somebody needs to do on a day-to-day basis in order to make that happen, that’s a good partner to have.

Most employees, when they start with an organization, have within them a pure energy; they believe in the company because they’ve just joined up, and they haven’t been disillusioned yet. At this stage, they are so willing to put their ideas forward, solve the problems, and brainstorm, whatever it takes, because people really understand the value of “You’re giving me something; I’m giving you something.” It’s our most inherent human behavior. And it’s so easy to derail that by not listening to somebody.

The first time you kill somebody’s enthusiasm can be really devastating. Have you ever been in a meeting during which someone was writing ideas up on the wall, and someone made a suggestion to which the leader said something like, “No, no, no. We can’t do that. We tried that, and we couldn’t do it”? What the leader is saying is that idea is not even good enough to put up on a whiteboard.

I say put everything up on the whiteboard. Even if it’s not the best idea, when you get votes from everybody, it will fall out. Quick and subtle things like that can make a big difference.

For example, take employee surveys. If you do a survey and then don’t do anything about it or don’t share what you are doing about it, you’re better off not doing the survey because now, people are angry that you asked and did nothing. You’re breaking trust that you asked, we answered, and now we’re going to do nothing.

Personal relationships operate around the same fundamental principle: trust. In a relationship, that loss of trust is almost permanent. If somebody cheats or does something bad, getting back from that is virtually impossible. It can happen, but you’re talking years of work and probably therapy.

The employer-employee relationship is the same. I don’t know why anyone would think it would be any different. People are oftentimes very invested in their jobs. It’s part of our identity.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s sad because somewhere along the line, you take it for granted that that person’s always going to be with you in a marriage or a relationship. I think companies do the same thing with employees. We just assume that people want to work here, and why wouldn’t they want to work here? Why wouldn’t they stay here?

That’s just not the case. People will hop jobs if they see a better opportunity. I think it’s worth keeping your eye open if there’s an opportunity for a company that provides recognition and shows that it values its employees and it does so over the long haul.

Because you’re right; just as I come in with lots of excitement—”I’m new; I’m excited”—companies do the exact same thing. They shower their new hires with training and orientation and ask, “How are you doing?” You’ve got to do that a year from now. You’ve got to do that 5 years from now.

You’ve got to make sure that you’re not just letting it float by, instead opting to really nurture that employee relationship. Like I’ve said, it’s easy to take things for granted.