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Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace

18 Feb 2013

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Ministry of Labour, Barr. Chukwuemeka Wogu

By Linda Eroke

Trust is very crucial for any organisation to succeed and any damage to trust can have far reaching consequences on the growth of any establishment, many analysts believe.

In today’s workplace, there have been crisis of trust. And in trying to understand what has caused the decline in the level of trust in work settings across most industries, management experts have listed two common factors that are responsible for the destruction of what was earlier seen as a social contract in the workplace. These are globalisation and economic recession - one of the most impactful economic downturns that have created chaos in organisations.

Jerald Robinson (PhD), a professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va, USA, argued that globalisation has damaged the social contract in the workplace - an element that for decades was a magnetic force attracting employees and employers.

He observed that during the last 25 years fewer companies have been able to uphold their contractual responsibilities, noting that businesses have suddenly closed and/or transferred operations offshore while affected employees feel damaged.
Moreso, the impact of the global economic recession has resulted in job losses, financial and credit crunch and leading to enormous challenges for Human Resource Practitioners across the globe. The situation is not different in Nigeria where job losses in the country have more than doubled in the last few years with figures jumping as high as 25 per cent (World Bank report) though analysts believe the figure may be higher.

Virtually all sectors of the nation’s economy are undergoing what could be described as an endless season of job losses. From the manufacturing sector to the telecom sector, down to the oil and even the financial industry, the story is the same. It is either job cuts resulting from restructuring, transformation strategy, downsizing or rightsizing. The bitter truth is that employers are cutting jobs on daily basis in a bid to cut operation costs. In the process, the very underpinnings of trust were upended.

According to Robinson, in businesses affected by globalisation and more recently by a global downturn, employees who remain after a downsizing feel taken advantage of because they have had to pick up additional work - and at times at reduced pay.
He said: “Yes, they have a job, but the trust level has been significantly reduced. Some more specific workplace reasons that the level of trust has been reduced to an absolute minimum are quite numerous”.

Today, studies show that one-third of working Americans plan to look for a new job when the economy gets better and, of this group, 48 percent cite a loss of trust in their employer as the reason. This figure might even be higher in Nigeria especially when you factor that Nigeria has been one the worst hit by the crisis.

Rebuilding Trust
Trust is a critical issue because it is at the very foundation of any organisation, government or business and as such leaders must be seen as people that can be trusted, so that organisations can have a motivated work force and a team approach to business operations.

Many experts often argue that trust is perhaps the most important element of a harmonious and effective work environment. Organisations that have trust among employees are usually successful while those that do not build trust frequently do not do as well.
Michelle and Dennis Reina, co-authors of ‘Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace: Seven Steps to Renew Confidence, Commitment, and Energy’ observed that a leader’s vision and objectives are irrelevant if employees are not ready to embrace change, if they are not confident, committed, and engaged, and if they lack the energy and passion to work together to create results. Those qualities they say and many more, require trust.

“Our research has shown that nine of every 10 employees experience some kind of breach of trust in the workplace on a regular basis. When trust erodes, morale declines, performance plummets and employees become disengaged and leave. We believe that trust-building behaviors are linked to strategic business results. Trust is challenged and often broken.

“Change itself does not necessarily break trust. It is how change is managed that causes uncertainty and often leads people to question the intentions of their leaders. While broken trust causes pain, doubt, and confusion, if people choose to work through broken trust, it may also be used to strengthen relationships, motivate and retain employees,” they said.

Citing example of a recent University of British Columbia report, where economists found that trust in management is the most valued determinant of job satisfaction, they stated that a small increase in trust of management is like getting a 36 per cent pay increase. Conversely, they added that if that same amount of trust is lost, the decline in employee job satisfaction is like taking a 36 per cent pay cut.

Speaking further, they maintained that organisations with trustworthy management do not experience the high cost of turnover. “Their employees stay”.

“Trust makes organisations work. In a trusting environment, employees have more energy, take risks, innovate more frequently, collaborate with co-workers, are responsible, treat customers better and drive business results. Simply put, organisations that foster trust are more profitable. A Watson Wyatt Worldwide study found that organisations in which front-line employees trusted senior leadership posted a 42 per cent higher return on shareholder investment than those firms in which distrust was the norm.

“These examples point to the value of a trusting environment and the competitive advantage it yields. Yet, trust is complex and hard to earn. There is only one thing that builds trust: the way people behave. To earn and sustain trust, leaders must become aware of the behaviors that build and break trust -- and know how to rebuild it again and again,” they added.

Though studies suggest that repairing trust should be a collective process across all levels of an organisation, supported by HR policies and practices, it is not enough simply for leaders to apologise for past mistakes - they need to ensure 'buy-in' from everyone else by showing their determination to learn from past mistakes. While management has a key role to play in re-establishing trust between staff and leaders, it is also important for employees to demonstrate their faith in the ability of management to rebuild trust in the workplace.

In rebuilding trust in the workplace, managers and supervisors need to be equipped with the necessary skills to deal with employment relations issues and to create more productive workplace environments.
To this end Michelle and Dennis Reina recommended seven steps to guide HR executives in rebuilding and sustaining trust with employees.

Observe and acknowledge what has happened:
They recommended that HR executives should start by assessing the health of the organisation. “Notice what people are experiencing and acknowledge it. Pay attention to both the blatant and subtle behaviors that are building and breaking trust. Healing begins when leaders acknowledge what has occurred, the effect on people and the system, and the resulting losses.”
They maintained that listening to people's concerns and fears and fully discern the impact of how people experienced the changes could go a long way in rebuilding trust in the workplace.

Allow feelings to surface:
The co-authors further stressed the need for HR executives to give employees permission to express their concerns, issues, and feelings in a constructive manner. They said: “During change, people often feel anxious and vulnerable. They wonder if they have what it takes to be successful in the new environment, questioning themselves as much as their leaders.

“Create safe forums that allow people to express their fear, anger, frustration and doubts. Doing so helps them begin to let go of the negativity they are holding, freeing up that energy for rebuilding relationships and returning their focus to performance”, they added.
Get support:

According to them, common mistake leaders, particularly HR executives, make is failing to seek support for themselves and for their employees during challenging times. This is because they get caught up with the assumption that we can manage on our own.
Michelle and Dennis Reina who admitted that rebuilding trust is hard work however emphasised that something quite powerful occurs when the breach of trust is truthfully acknowledge.  There added that “There is a releasing quality when people shift from finger-pointing to seeking to understand; from judgment and criticism to considering extenuating circumstances; from abdication of responsibility to problem solving and taking responsibility; from loss to possibilities”.

They submitted that leaders and their people cannot do this alone adding that they need support to fully understand what occurred, its effects and the actions necessary to move through the healing process.

Reframe the experience:
The experts explained that people are supported to reframe their experience when they are encouraged to look at the bigger picture, reflect on extenuating circumstances, notice the business reasons for change and explore opportunities that changes present.
According to them, healing is a process of inquiry and occurs when people are provided with an opportunity to have their questions answered. “Responding to questions honestly gives people an awareness and understanding of the bigger picture leading to renewed hope for trusting relationships and their place in the organisation”.

Take responsibility:
The management experts charged HR executives to take responsibility for their roles stressing that it is not helpful to spin the truth or to cover up mistakes. They explained that “people see right through it and trust is further diminished. Taking responsibility means acknowledging mistakes or oversights. Telling the truth, without justification and rationalisation, demonstrates a leader's trustworthiness and exposes vulnerability.


“Doing so makes it safe for others to expose their vulnerability, seek support and take responsibility for their behaviours. Sometimes three simple words, “I am sorry,” reflect taking responsibility -- and they go a long way to rebuilding trust”.

Forgive yourself and others:


They insisted that HR executives must recognise that “forgiveness is freedom” noting that anger, bitterness and resentment deplete people's energy and interfere with relationships and performance.


“They undermine morale, productivity, innovation and engagement, and erode trust. Leaders can help cultivate a healing, trustworthy environment where forgiveness takes place. By helping people forgive, they help them open up possibilities for the future by changing their attitudes about the past.


“For most people, forgiveness takes time, and happens gradually. Over time employees may be willing to forgive, but they cannot be expected to forget. Leaders can help their people heal from the pain they felt, but they cannot erase the events of the past,” they added.
Let go and move on:


In conclusion, they explained that “acceptance is not condoning what was done but experiencing the reality of what happened without blame”, adding that people accept what is so when they separate themselves from their preoccupation with the past and invest their emotional energies in creating a different future.


“When trust is lost, it is regained only by a sincere dedication to the key behaviors and practices that earned it in the first place. The journey back to trusting is not an easy one. However, by listening, telling the truth, giving the benefit of the doubt, seeking to understand and practicing trust-building behaviours, people will find their way,” they emphasised.
  

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