I do a lot of work on company culture for my clients. It is an amazing thing that most companies today have devolved to a place where the culture isn’t very healthy. According to Gallup in 2016, 70% of American workers are either Disengaged or Actively Disengaged from their jobs (for discussion purposes, disengaged means that they basically couldn’t care less). Actively disengaged means they are either consciously or sub-consciously working against you.
For the places that actually take the time to do employee surveys, it shows up in several key (and mostly universal) areas. The survey will show things like:
Communication is poor.
Employees don’t trust management.
Teamwork is poor.
There is entire other blog post coming on employee surveys, but if your approach is that you give a survey every 2 – 3 years and launch a “charm” campaign immediately afterward that lasts a few weeks, please do us all a favor and just stop. Instead of spending that money and time on those surveys, just host an Ice Cream Social and tell your employees thank you! It will probably be more effective. However, I digress.
Culture and Trust
Working on culture is not easy. It is not for the faint of heart and it takes time to establish. Think of it like this, your company culture has been under development for however long your organization has existed. Unfortunately, you can’t just read a book and give a speech and it will all be better. That only works in Hollywood.
So rather than writing another book on culture, I want to write about the most important aspect of a healthy culture. That is trust.
Like you, I have heard all the ideas associated with trust: You must earn it, it can’t be given, once it’s broken it can’t be recovered, and I don’t trust anyone until it's proven to me that I should trust them. The fact is that your organization can only move at the speed of trust. It is a necessity. If there is skepticism or even worse, cynicism in the organization, it will slow you down greatly. This is further exacerbated if distrust runs rampant throughout the levels of the organization.
When people don’t trust each other, or the leadership or the corporate office, it becomes an overwhelming sort of distraction. They start doing lots of activities that take away their focus from the mission. They start doing CYA (Cover your ass) sort of activities, and copying other people, and saving all their old e-mails. They also start having side-bar meetings to try and figure out what the VP “really” meant when he said the 2nd quarter forecast was softer than expected by 10%. These are all distractions and driven primarily from a lack of trust.
Now, there are a lot of types of trust in an organization. The most basic form in work situations is that people trust each other to get a task done. Joe said he would complete the proposal, I know that he will. And that’s a good starting point. However, there are other types of trust, and the magic happens at those deeper layers.
A second type of organizational trust is truly believing what the leadership says. Are they “practicing what they preach?” Are their words matching their actions? Are they in congruence with the company’s mission? I have actually witnessed an executive that was making an announcement of a layoff right after he finished saying that the company’s people were the most valuable asset. But instead, what I heard was, “We are a bunch of morons because we are about to get rid of some number of the companies most valuable assets.” Or even worse, “you, the employees, are, in fact, NOT our most valuable assets. MONEY is.”
As you might imagine it went over like a fart in church. Not only were the people being laid-off impacted, those that remained were left thinking who in the hell do we work for? Is he stupid or just a really-big jerk?
Another important aspect of trust is the idea of being vulnerable. This means you go first. It also means that you don’t (or shouldn’t) have all the answers. It means that you must be willing to trust in the people you are leading, to the point and degree that you will allow yourself to focus on your strengths and allow the people on your team to focus on their unique skills and strengths. In other words, the team should all be encouraged and allowed to play to their highly developed skillsets
Rules Around Trust
I do think that there are some rules around trust that are important, however. Mainly: Trust is a 2-way street. If you want your team to trust in you, you must also put trust in them. If you feel like you must be involved in every decision and be aware of every minuscule detail in your department or organization, you are stifling the creativity of the people you work with. And you might as well have a giant sign above your office that says: I DON’T TRUST YOU.
The funny thing about all of this is that much of the time, people will rise to the challenges placed in front of them. In other words, if you demonstrate that you believe that your people are awesome dynamic, fantastic people, they will work hard to prove that you are right about them. If you demonstrate that you don’t trust them through your words or actions, they will work hard to cover their own rear-ends. Either way, your people will mirror and reflect the leadership they are provided with.
The point of all this that as a leader, you influence the culture greatly. You can choose (yes, it is a choice) to approach your team with trust. Imagine there is a big reset button in front of you and you can embrace the idea that hitting the reset button erases what has happened before this very minute, and you get a clean slate. Start approaching your team from a position of trust. Challenge them to be awesome, support them in trying new things and coach them if things don’t go as planned.
Now, some of you may be saying, there is no way I can trust Joe or Mary. And while I understand that sentiment, you simply need to ask yourself why Joe and Mary are still employed on your team?
You can only move your organization’s culture at the speed of trust. If you and your team have this screwed up, then every little thing that comes up in the future will be a royal pain in the neck. If it feels like every little thing is a pain in the neck, do a little digging on your team dynamic and see if you are lacking trust, and set about making that better. If you do, it will pay you dividends for a long time.