A Culture of (Dis)Belief: The Role of Trust in Employee Engagement

September 6, 2012

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The fervor surrounding the very public airing of Greg Smith's grievances with his former employer, Goldman Sachs, has faded. But that doesn't mean the conversation about it should necessarily follow suit.

It's a good illustration of how trust in leadership plays a strong role in employee engagement.

Ideally, company cultures are shaped by shared values, goals and responsibilities. A culture is a blueprint for the environment in which a business will do its work and how that work will be done. Apparently Smith, who seemed to have been an engaged employee for several years, didn't feel his experience reflected the company's identified culture. And, he apparently didn't have enough trust in its leaders to call them on it.

Trust is a fundamental component of any company relationship, both externally and internally. Externally, as a customer, I should be able to trust that a company and its product will do what they say it will. Internally, think of trust as the conscience for your culture. Employees should trust that the company processes and policies are all focused on the same things – serving the customer, growing the business and advancing employee opportunities. Employees should also trust that their leaders and teammates share those same principles – and reflect that in the decisions they make.

If employee engagement is, as we believe, the discretionary effort an employee is willing to expend to achieve organizational goals, why should they put extra effort into a system in which they have no faith – and for people they don't really trust? In a 2011 survey, Blessing White found that 72 percent of surveyed employees trusted their managers while just 52 percent said they trusted their organization's top-tier leaders.

Trust isn't a behavior nor is it something that can be commanded. Trust is earned. Following are some solid ways that we advocate to help meld trust within your company culture.

  • Ensure understanding. Make sure everyone in the company knows your values and strategic objectives. It's also important to spotlight the employees and behaviors that contribute to the culture you want. Then, others can follow that example.
  • Set the standard. For a company culture to thrive, its leaders must share their vision for the company, offer a path to achieve it and reinforce those beliefs by staying the course themselves. Employees look to their leaders for behavior cues; they trust them to do the right things. If your boss doesn't abide by what he or she tells you, why should you?
  • Follow the example. Likewise, leaders need to trust their employees will practice a culture's behaviors by doing their part to achieve overall business goals. In turn, employees need to be able to trust their leaders enough to go to them – without fear of reprisal – when a practice or a colleague makes that impractical, if not impossible.