Raising the trust curve

We’ve heard a lot recently about flattening the curve. Last week when as I was catching up with Jayson Phelps, an executive search expert, I started to think about raising the curve when it comes to trust. We were talking about one of the most cantankerous issues looming over employers and employees as they wade deeper into the COVID-19 swamp: how do we raise the trust curve in our workplaces?

Jayson had just recently spoke with a newly placed leader in a high-tech role. While on-boarding is challenging enough, imagine having only a couple of months under your belt before the pandemic struck. Suddenly, this person was responsible for stewarding the transition of thousands of people from cubicles to their kitchen tables. The big boss was asking tough questions about maintaining security and about how the company would know people were “really working”, not just minding the kids or worse yet, getting caught up on the latest Netflix series.

The genie is out of the bottle

Last week, I wrote about a new prag-manity that would be required in decision making – one that balanced the pragmatic with the humane. It struck me that trust will need to undergo an equally complex recalibration.

The trust genie, so to speak, is out of the bottle. Contradictory data and opposing sentiments underscore the need to find whether your company’s trust barometer is going up or down. The story of these contrasting values begins with the Edelman Trust Barometer. Their study revealed 80% of employees in Canada and the U.S. said the most trusted relationship they have is with their employer. This level of trust is significantly higher than employees’ faith in NGOs, business, government or the media. The correlation between trust and treatment is inextricably tied. 78% of employees said it’s how they are treated that gauges the level of trust they put into their organization.

With this in mind, a Korn Ferry blog suggested while it might be a little “tone deaf”, a growing number of organizations have been installing spyware on employees’ computers. This software enables employers to take screen shots, track website visits, email and more. A performance monitoring tool, the software could be used to monitor productivity and contributions as well as determining bonuses.

Two sides of the data story

Tut, tut, the blog went on to say, this surveillance could be explained as something for the employees’ own good – to ensure security and privacy. It was posited that employees working long hours would object less because they had nothing to hide. The assumption being employees who failed to put in the required hours would object because they would be found out. When (not if) word gets out about spyware on your machine, star performers may bolt, seeking opportunities with less surveillance once things settle down. That seems to be a risk of losing trust some organizations are willing to make.

But let’s look at the other side of building trust, from the employee side. In a Business Traveller, report, data showed people are working longer days from home. Take a quick look at the graph below. Working hours in Canada, UK, France and Spain have extended by an average of two hours. Moreover, people are starting work earlier, likely because they’ve escaped marathon commutes.

Raising the curve of trust

Two-way trust is about the only thing we have to hold on to right now. The way organizations and employees nurture trust is to grant it, rather than challenging each to earn it. Earning trust is a bygone notion; it bolsters hierarchical structure, reinforces power politics and places greater value on the individual than the team.

Granting trust means recognizing structures, that were up until now, rigid and largely taken for granted will become as messy as the cottage junk drawer. As people who are working from home try to figure things out on the fly, leaders have to become less fixed on their way of doing things (viewed in some leader’s minds as the right way). As we’ve seen in health care, countries around the world are adept at improvising; there are many paths to the same destination.

Granting trust during these times means demonstrating faith. If a report doesn’t hit your desk on time or is not up to standard, have a private conversation with the person to find out what’s going on in the background. Context is everything, as Gable’s cartoon so aptly captured. If your organization finds itself installing spyware, think about how you will share its purpose and how you will be transparent with findings.

Testing what we’ve learned and how to apply it, will be essential to establishing new patterns, new codes of conduct and new ways to work. The difference now is ways of working will be co-created rather than emanating as edicts from above.

Coming clean on trust is an emerging issue for workplaces of all sizes wrestling in the pandemic ring. As a good friend of mine once said, when something good happens to a person, they may tell 3 or 4 people. When something bad happens, it goes viral. How workplaces respond to granting and growing trust will affect their financial and spiritual health not just over the coming weeks, but years to come.

There’s a lot at stake. Losing trust may leave your organization more vulnerable than the virus we are now combating.

While it’s generally acknowledged many things will not be the same after this crisis, how we renew trust must remain our NorthStar. Do your part, wherever you work to raise the curve on trust. Even the smallest acknowledgements of granting trust will go a long way.

Think hard, think twice. Think about granting, not earning trust.

A bit more to share:

Recent Reflections on leadership during the Pandemic

Pause before you decide a look at three pauses you can take to make more informed decisions during times of intense pressure and fast-moving change during the pandemic.

Lead like your life depends on it, a discussion of how leader are becoming compression experts in the face of COVID-19 with reflection on how we become more self-aware.

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