Building Trust as We Return to the Workplace

Darrell VanDeusen
Darrell VanDeusen

I am spending a lot of time these days counseling employers who are in the middle of having their employees return to the worksite.  One of the big issues (no surprise here) is whether employees have been vaccinated.  Do you request documentation?  Do you rely on someone’s statement that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, or because they have a religious objection?  Do you punish those who chose not to vaccinate just because?

For some employers it seems there’s a knee jerk reaction that employees are going to try to game the system.  And, sure, even before the pandemic we all know that happens.  But in my experience most employees will not do that, and trying to apply a work rule to all that is focused on the worst possible employee has the unintended consequence of suggesting you distrust all of your workers.

Perhaps that’s why I was struck by David Brooks Op Ed in the New York Times, on June 10, 2021.  He is painting with a broader brush, for sure, but it’s worth a read, so here it is.

How to Build Trust: A Practical Guide

Distrust is a cancer eating away at our society. It magnifies enmity, stifles cooperation and fuels conspiracy thinking. So the question is, how do you build trust?

Within organizations, trust is usually built by leaders who create environments that encourage people to behave with integrity, competence and benevolence.

That’s not just a matter of character, but of having the right practical skills — knowing what to do in complex situations to make people feel respected and safe. Here are some practices leaders have used in their companies and organizations to build trust:

Assume excellence. The more you monitor your employees’ behavior, the more distrusted they will feel and the more distrustful they will become. Leaders who trust their employees may tell them what to do, but they let them manage their own schedules and fulfill their responsibilities in their own ways. In the 1980s, Hewlett-Packard allowed engineers to take equipment home without a lot of formal paperwork, because they had confidence they would bring the stuff back.

Be more human. Many of us over 45 were raised to separate personal life from professional life. This distinction is less recognized by younger generations who want to bring their whole selves to work and be open about emotions, mental health issues and other personal matters. A couple of years ago, the interns on a team I was leading told me they didn’t feel I really knew them, and they wanted to spend an afternoon sharing their childhood photos. At first, I thought this was ridiculous, but we did it, and it was the right thing to do. We established new levels of vulnerability and emotional rapport. Janice Nadler of Northwestern found that negotiators who spend just five minutes chatting about nonwork stuff before a negotiation felt more cooperative, shared more information and developed more trust with each other in subsequent communications.

No back-channel condemnations. Many schools, companies and organizations have become snake pits of distrust because leaders have allowed some in the community to condemn others online, without ever sitting in a room with the accused and talking it out. Once this behavior becomes acceptable the harshest people in the organization take over and everyone else cowers.

Discourage cliques. A team that has split into different subcultures is bound to become a team in which distrust thrives. Mix people up so they don’t divide into cliques.

Don’t overvalue transparency. There is a widespread perception that people will trust you if you make your organization’s operations more visible to outsiders. This is mostly false. Trust in government was plummeting in 1976 when the federal government passed the Sunshine Act to increase transparency; it continued to decline afterward. One 2011 study suggests that if ordinary citizens are given more information about how a public health care system goes about allocating its resources, their general trust in the health care system is weakened, compared with those given no information on the decision-making process at all.

Maximum feasible vulnerability. Screw-ups are, paradoxically, opportunities to build trust, so long as you admit error and are clear about what you’ve learned and what you’re doing to change. Prosperous times can undermine trust if leaders preen and self-promote. This kind of behavior seems selfish — and thus trust-destroying.

Admit social ignorance. About 95 percent of the M.B.A. students in Roderick Kramer’s negotiation classes say they are above average in their ability to size up other people’s honesty, trustworthiness and reliability. The fact is, as research by William Ickes at the University of Texas at Arlington has shown, we’re not always so good at understanding what’s going on in other people’s minds. People who feel mis-seen and misheard will not trust you. The only solution is to constantly ask people what they are thinking and what dilemmas they are facing. Often, we send social signals that are too subtle to be received. Be explicit.

Give away power. In eras when distrust is high, hierarchies of power are usually suspect. Leaders earn trust by spreading authority through the ranks. In his book “The Power of Giving Away Power,” Matthew Barzun contrasts pyramid hierarchical structures with constellation structures in which power is dispersed. Pyramid structures encourage a competitive win-lose mind-set, he writes, while constellation structures encourage cooperation.

Answer distrust with trust. People who have learned to be distrusting will resist your friendship because they assume you will eventually betray them. If you keep showing up for them after they have rejected you, it will eventually change their lives.

It is harder to build trust in diverse societies. Over the past decade we have learned that our social skills are inadequate to the sort of complex society we are living in. Thus, declining interpersonal trust has emerged as one of the greatest threats to America’s future. Rebuilding trust isn’t about good intentions; it’s about concrete behaviors.

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