The pace of change within most organisations is accelerating. It’s now commonplace for companies to be restructuring, changing their business model, undertaking M&As, launching a new strategy or initiative, entering a new market or even relocating.
Amidst all the uncertainty, employees feel anxious and fearful. If there has been constant change and the organisation has yet to stabilise or the change hasn’t been handled well in the past, then it’s most likely that employees will show little enthusiasm to embrace the new insert project title, initiative here>.
Unfortunately, humans are wired to fear change. In fact, our brains are constantly scanning our environment to assess whether anything is different – from an air conditioner turning off to a co-worker turning up with red socks when they only ever wear black.
It’s all to do with when we were on the African Savannah 50,000 years ago. Living in tribes kept us safe from man-eating tigers and provided us with food when we were sick. We learnt to trust that other people were looking out for us and they could trust that we would look out for them.
From an evolutionary perspective, humans haven’t really changed much from those OMG!-is-that-a-tiger-hiding-behind-that-bush? days. For our survival, we are biologically programmed to want to be with other people and to notice differences in our environment.
In an office setting, we still want to feel safe. We want to know that our co-workers and boss are looking out for us, that people care about us, appreciate us and our work. Essentially, we need to trust that we are wanted in the tribe and that we won’t be thrown out and need to fend for ourselves.
When we first start working with a company or a new team, we quickly assess whether the team leader and our teammates can be trusted. This decision determines whether we will become fully productive and work above and beyond what is expected of us.
As Abraham Maslow taught in his Hierarchy of Needs, we can’t concern ourselves with higher goals until we have the necessities of life, including safety, belonging (social) and meaning (esteem). If we don’t feel that, we’re more likely to be focusing our energies on survival rather than creation and contribution. We’re unable to commit and believe in the vision.
Trust gives us a sense of safety to explore and understand our world. In a business context, it means we can commit to actions, make decisions faster and have the confidence to buy into a big vision and get an innovative project off the ground. It means that we can cope more with a new change.
But how can a leader start building trust in the workplace?
1. Create a work environment where people feel safe
Most work environments aren’t designed to fulfil our inherent need that we feel safe among our tribe. Our feelings of control, stress, and our ability to perform at our best are directly tied to how safe we feel in our organisation. When people know they can be themselves, make mistakes and speak up and they won’t be told off, it creates psychological safety. Google did a study of its high performing teams and found that the number one factor for high performance was psychological safety.
Often, leaders put an undue focus on making the numbers which sends a subtle message that money is more important than people. Even worse is when employees are pitted against each other. Whenever employees see signs that they are just tools of productivity who need to be constantly motivated to work, it decreases trust and commitment to helping the organisation. Internal rivalries can shatter a culture.
We are at our best when we unite together to solve a problem. A group of people working on a challenge will always get better results than individuals working on their own (and sabotaging their peer’s work).
At the most basic level, organisations need to create the right systems to show that people are appreciated and wanted in the business. This means that ‘hygiene factors’ are taken care of – good pay and entitlements.
Once the basic systems are taken care of, then there needs to be attention placed on how work gets done. High trust companies champion building trust in teams. This means rewarding collaborative teams, where achieving team goals are more important than individual ones. That’s why high-trust companies tend to be the most innovative. At the same time, people’s individual skills and abilities need to be valued for this to work.
Once you’ve paid attention to food and shelter (money), safety and social, the three bottom rungs of Maslow’s pyramid are taken care of. Then, you can start moving people up the ladder into higher levels and more easily into change. This involves more active leadership.
2. Leaders Lead with Trust
In 20 years of research, Great Places to Work Institute found that trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.
According to a Tower Watson’s survey, one of the top reasons for disengaged employees in Australia is a lack of trust in leadership. And when do you think employees are more likely to distrust leaders? During times of transition.
According to the same study, Australian employees lose trust in their managers because they are tired of change and want clear direction and leadership from their managers.
Employees are more likely to trust leaders if leaders are clear on their intent, perceived as being highly competent and create an environment where people can speak up and challenge leaders.
The goal of leadership is to set a culture where people feel a sense of belonging. When trust and collaboration thrive, people pull together and the organisation grows stronger. Trust is often overlooked as a leadership competency because it is taken for granted.
High-performance leaders reinforce people’s need for safety and strong social connections at work. They do this through communication skills.
3. Trust-Building Communication
Company communication is a vital component linking leadership and trust. It’s an enabler of trust. When effective, it aligns employees’ self-interest to a more meaningful, bigger purpose set by the organisation. Communication needs to link people’s impact and the meaning behind work constantly, so that everyone collectively understands the goal they are all working towards and how their input matters.
As mentioned before, human beings need certainty. They need to feel safe and that they have a secure future. By having open and transparent communication, employees don’t have to guess what leaders are thinking, and are less likely to gossip, take sickies and even conduct fraud. Our primitive minds still perceive the world around us in terms of threats to our well-being or opportunities to find safety.
If employees suspect information is being hidden from them, they are more likely to assume the worst-case scenario which reduces productivity. In fact, a recent Geckoboard study uncovered that when employees hear nothing, more than half “resort to doing their own detective work” to find out what’s going on. A further 90% of employees would rather hear bad news than be kept in the dark.
Leaders who have the skills to frame change in a way that builds trust, tap into their employee’s inherent desire to want to make an impact, do meaningful work and even get out of bed excited about work. Get this right and employees start moving into self-actualization (or flow) and start to really connect the purpose of their work to more than just making money for the organisation.
According to a McKinsey study, 75% of change initiatives fail, often because the people aspect is overlooked or mismanaged. It doesn’t have to be this way. The reality is that people are not only programmed to want to be together they’re also wired to seek challenges and novelty and explore their world.
Trust in the workplace is the secret sauce that pulls people together during times of change. Creating a high trust environment gives people the security they need to know that they will be okay and that leaders and their teammates will look after them. It’s the number one method to create a thriving, mentally healthy workplace where people thrive on change.
And it involves trust. Leaders trusting employees and employees trusting leaders. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.”