If you’ve ever wondered how vital trust is to people in the workplace, here’s some insight from a cultural assessment we conducted recently with the middle managers of a new client. It was the first step in implementing our ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System at that organization. The assessment tool is simple to use and highly revealing. It provides a statistical snapshot of how a group of people ranks a set of 40 value statements in comparing their current culture with the target culture they would prefer.
One of the value statements in the assessment is “Demonstrate trust in and respect for others.” While there is usually a gap in how that statement is ranked between the current and the target cultures with every client, it was especially striking with this one. Participants ranked it 30th among the 40 statements in the current culture – and number one in the target culture. We also calculate the mean scores to assess how the group rates the prominence of each value statement for both current and target cultures – 1.0 is the lowest possible score and 7.0 is the highest. On this statement, the mean score for this group was 3.25 for the current culture and 5.94 for the target culture.
Sending the Wrong Message
That’s a big gap, and the current low level of trust was evident in a later discussion we had with the senior managers. A core feature of the ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System is the focus on giving front-line and middle managers the authority to approve smaller improvement ideas from employees – rather than going through a suggestion committee or senior management review. The reason is partly to get more decisions made closer to the where the action is. It also helps managers develop leadership skills in guiding and coaching people who report to them.
Well, these senior managers didn’t want employees to go through their supervisors with their ideas. Why? Because they felt the supervisors would turn down too many potential improvements, and they wanted employees to be able to submit ideas directly into the improvement database.
That approach may sound reasonable on the surface, but the message it sends is unmistakable – “We don’t trust you to be fair to employees or make sound judgments about their ideas.” Of course, that attitude typifies what the assessment revealed about the disparity between their current and target cultures.
We eventually reached a compromise that gets all ideas from employees recorded – and still allows supervisors to provide coaching and guidance. The larger issue, though, is how to bridge the current trust gap between upper and lower levels of management.
Taking the First Step
One key to resolving that dilemma can be drawn from Henry Stimson, who was one of the great U.S. statesmen in the first half of the 20th century. He once said, “The only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him.” The implications of those words are clear for organizations like this one facing a crisis in trust. While there is truth in the old adage that trust is a two-way street, someone has to take the first step – and it needs to be senior management.
For leaders who choose to ignore Stimson’s advice and withhold their trust, there’s one thing they can count on. They will rarely be disappointed – because they’re sure to find plenty of people who live up to (or down to) the low expectations they hold of people. If they choose instead to take that first step in granting trust, they will surely be disappointed once in a while. But the payoff in performance and loyalty that they will get from the vast majority of employees far outweighs the risks of putting faith in people who feel trusted to do the right thing.
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