When the wheels fall off – and how to put them back on. Trust relationships at work.

Jeff Salter

“I did not want to come here, did not want to be here, did not want to do any work, did not feel like a part of this place anymore.”

“I absolutely adore him… I can tell him anything, workwise or anything that’s affecting me.”

Two employees, same workplace, two different line managers, two different trust relationships.

There is broad agreement that successful trust relationships at work enhance employee engagement and wellbeing. A recent Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) research report entitled ‘Where has all the trust gone?’ suggests that trust is hard won but easily lost and that the maintenance of trust is a key factor in better performance at work. It concludes that heightened trust has a direct impact on whether employees would recommend the organisation to others, their own level of job motivation and whether they intend to stay or leave their job.

But what about when the trust relationship between you and your manager breaks down? When MTGT researched the growth and loss of trust between employees and their line managers, loss of trust was devastating for some, with effects going beyond difficult emotions and feelings to feeling permanently tainted by the experience. This comprised a lessening of their own levels of integrity and willingness to trust others as well as affecting their motivation in work and intentions to remain in or leave the organisation.

There were some harrowing stories of how some leaders were perceived by employees. Here are the ‘trust bottom five’, the most often-repeated characteristics of non-trustworthy managers:

  1. They claim all success as theirs… and deflect all failures elsewhere.
  2. They don’t care… but often pretend to.
  3. They are unpredictable: they say they will do one thing, but do the other. Or deny they have said it. Or ‘switch’ temperamentally.
  4. They are manipulative: they take rather than give to conversations, they play games.
  5. They are exhausting: they drain energy, they’re ‘slippery’.

This was in contrast to those whose trust had been enhanced. Most significant was how the appreciation for a line manager’s actions over time often manifested itself in a trust bank; a store of residual trust identified by participants, who were therefore willing to overlook other weaknesses of less importance in the relationship. They also felt safe, enabling them to take risks and develop their role without fear and appreciate the relationship and working conditions that had been created between them. Participants were also able to see how their line manager had become a personal and professional role model for them and in some cases, there were wider effects of the enhancement of trust; participants being able to refer to wider recognition within the organisation as a result of the trust climate created.

So what creates trust between employees and their managers at work? Here are the top ten:

  1. Be honourable: don’t trash people, try to overcome temptation, do the right thing – especially in challenging circumstances.
  2. Hold confidences…but also be open – and know when to do both.
  3. Be vulnerable: admit your weaknesses and ask for feedback.
  4. Care and connect: be empathic, be ‘status blind’, be yourself – people will overlook your faults if you do.
  5. Humour is important: don’t take yourself too seriously and create a relaxed (but appropriate) working environment.
  6. Create safe spaces: either the conditions or actual places where people can let off steam and be emotionally healthy at work.
  7. Take responsibility: lead the way, be reliable, be willing to ‘take the heat’ but also…
  8. Empower others: respect people’s autonomy and challenge and enable them to be the best they can be.
  9. Be knowledgeable, experienced or skilled: especially in crisis situations. If you can’t…
  10. Be wise and be a learner: don’t pretend you know, learn about the company have you joined, what people do and what is important to them.

Simply put, participants felt safe, appreciated, challenged and motivated by working with trustworthy line managers and angry, tainted, silenced and unmotivated working with non-trustworthy ones. By attending to these issues and growing trust, organisations have the potential to limit the latter effects and enhance the former.