Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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How leaders can rebuild trust

Published 11 December 2012 05:01, Updated 30 January 2013 21:59

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How leaders can rebuild trust

Since 2009, ratings for leaders have fallen 10-17 per cent in terms of reflecting company values, demonstrating a commitment to employee development and effectively communicating an organisation’s vision, mission and strategy.

It is a big ask to expect people to trust their bosses when they have just finished saying farewell to the last retrenched colleagues for the year.

It has been a tough 12 months for most people. Houses haven’t sold, childcare fees have gone up, the intensity of work has ratcheted up a few points and, one-by-one, workmates have disappeared from their workstations as if beamed up randomly by some Star Trek spaceship.

Gone, without a trace.

In so many office buildings, people rattle around on semi-deserted floors while their leaders get their heads around the intricacies of subletting space. It is just not the same place any more. When the old-timers left, some of the soul was exorcised from the business.

However, organisations can’t thrive without a level of trust and leaders have to find ways to build it – or rebuild it.

The first question to ask is: why should people trust their leaders and managers? They know that no-one’s job can be said to be safe any more.

The managing director of Lee Hecht Harrison, Bruce Anderson, says that, in times like these, it is no longer reasonable to trust that jobs are safe – but people should be able to trust that they are being told the truth.

“It is just about being transparent and clear about the situation. There should be quarterly updates from the CEO and down. That is really important, given the pressures business is under. Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver and don’t leave a looming threat over people’s heads,” he says, adding that in the current environment: “Leadership is not for the faint-hearted”.

While no-one’s job may be safe, managers should be having conversations with the people they intend to keep, reassuring them of their importance to the organisation. This may prevent them from “jumping ship” in the anticipation of more cuts.

Anderson is well aware of the impact of retrenchment campaigns – the largest slice of business at Lee Hecht Harrison is outplacement, helping people transition into new jobs after they have left their old ones.

The company also deals with leadership development.

Maintaining trust is not something that is being well done at the moment. Research out of the US this year shows that, despite a lift on national economic performance, this has not flowed through to an improvement in the way employers are viewed by their people.

The 2012 scores were lower than even the 2009 ones, when employers were facing the full force of the Global Financial Crisis, according to Building Trust in Business 2012: How Top Companies Leverage Trust (research by Leadership, and Collaboration: Interaction Associates in partnership with the Human Capital Institute, June 2012).

Since 2009, ratings for leaders fell 10-17 per cent in terms of modelling and reflecting company values, demonstrating a commitment to employee development and effectively communicating an organisation’s vision, mission and strategy.

The biggest decline in trust is around leadership consistency, predictability, and transparency in decisions and actions.

Anderson says one of the best ways to combat the falling regard in which leaders are held is for them to be open about who they are as people.

“Self-disclosure takes courage, too,” he says.

Employees see that others in the company are being treated fairly and with respect, especially when they are losing their jobs.

“Treat people in the way you would like to be treated,” he says.

Organisations that do this well make an extraordinary effort to help their retrenched people find new jobs.

“I was just speaking to someone last week whose boss was ringing around trying to help,” he says.

When there are mass redundancies, other companies may hold job fairs, inviting other employers to come and interview the people that are leaving.

Some organisations are doing very well in redeploying people into other areas, rather than retrenching them when the job no longer is sustainable.

“[Redundancy] is the ultimate test of a relationship between an employer and a manager. The conversation should be honest, structured, straight forward, but empathetic and thoughtful.”

Anderson has three tips for leaders who want to build trust:

  1. Be available. Spend time with your people. When times get tough, they need to see more of you, not less. People are not looking for you to save them, but want you to be a rock they can hang onto when they want to understand things.
  2. Be consistent. Don’t flip-flop with your messages. People should know what your direction is and what you stand for.
  3. Be real. Disclose your discomfort in talking about difficult things. Show who you are. People want to see you as an individual.