Finding Balance: Workplace trust: an important tool in tough times

Several years of research has shown that one of the most important ingredients in building a workplace flexible enough to withstand the tough times we’re in is workplace trust. This, of course, isn’t a new idea, but it is definitely an important one in challenging times.

Over the past two decades, workplace trust has become the subject of some intense research in workplaces around the world. I recently had the pleasure to hear Patricia Kempthorne, president of the Twiga Foundation and former first lady of Idaho, speak about workplace flexibility at a business leaders’ breakfast in Manchester. Twiga, based in Idaho, works to bring family consciousness into workplaces, communities and homes.

Kempthorne’s research has found that trust is related to how flexible and, ultimately, how successful a business is. Following up on her speech, I hit the UNH library to see if I could prove it.

Several studies yielded bad news: Right now, in this climate, trust among U.S. workers appears to be at an all-time low. If this research is accurate, it means that workers are wasting lot of time and energy on worry, distrust and conflict. Although many companies are trying to put a positive spin on current conditions (often right before announcing bailouts or layoffs), increased honesty might be a better strategy, because it would increase trust among employees.

There’s undeniable evidence that trust not only makes a company more flexible to meet changing economic conditions, it is a key ingredient in improving both worker productivity and performance. In any workplace, trust occurs on three levels:

• The individual level: This is the trust an employee feels when coming to work each day. Those workers who feel they are being watched and micro-managed aren’t as productive as those workers who can make their own decisions, balance their own schedules with work/life/family needs, and ask for help when they need it without being challenged or made to feel untrustworthy.

• The supervisory level: The real face of a company’s trust is the individual supervisor. Study after study found that supervisors who are honest, open and straightforward about their expectations of an employee get much better results from that employee. Business is really just about relationships, and the most important one at work is between an employee and his or her supervisor.

• The company level: We are seeing strong evidence of what lack of trust does at this level in the headlines everyday. If we lose faith in a company or even an industry, it can be the call of death. Trust, at the company level means that you operate with ethics and that your entire team believes in a strong mission and delivers on the promises you make to your clients.

Demonstrate integrity

What do we do if we want to build trust among the people we manage? Well the answer is pretty simple, really.

Tell them the truth — the whole truth. Be honest and open, particularly right now about the company’s bottom line. Open up! If you try to be strategic in how you share information, nearly everyone will recognize your ruse and feel cheated.

Demonstrate integrity. Be honest about what you and the company are up to. If you say you are going to do something, do it. If you can’t follow through on something you said you were going to do, tell everyone why you didn’t. Don’t make lame excuses or hide behind hidden policies.

Learn to say these things to the people you work with: I screwed up, and I’m sorry. We are a forgiving culture, but only with those who are honest about their mistakes.

The last piece of advice the research suggests is really about your business nature.

It appears that people who are successful in building what Kempthorne calls flexible and firm companies are those who have come to believe that in the end, most employees are honest, hard-working and want to do well.

So, when they need to change their schedule to accommodate their kids’ needs, or work from home one day a week to deal with the needs of their elderly

parents, or they tell you they aren’t getting the cooperation they need from some department, believe them and do everything in your power to help out.

Believing in the goodness, strength and capacities of those you work with — that’s what engenders trust. In these times, if you aren’t doing everything you can to build trust, you’d better start.

Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension and teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008, or