Engagement strategies remain important for improving profitability; but engagement without building trust is an empty shell.

High profile public scandals over the last few years – phone hacking by journalists, reckless actions by banks and misbehaviour by individual politicians and media stars – have combined to dent public perceptions of trustworthiness in these institutions and their senior managers or representatives. As a result, those in leadership roles across a wide range of organisations have found themselves charged with the task of repairing and building trust  and overriding the widespread doubt and uncertainty felt by large swathes of the public (who include, of course, employees).

Happily, the evidence from research into how organisations have managed this apparently daunting task suggests that trust repair can be done, and done very effectively. Moreover, organisations that have had the prescience to establish a culture of trust as inherent to their organisation development from the outset are better able to manage crises and setbacks (such as redundancies) than organisations that have focused too narrowly on employee engagement.

I’d like to focus here on what trust in organisations actually is and how it can be built. Research by a number of academics and experts in the field, including the University of Bristol’s School of Management and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), consistently demonstrate that organisations that invest their energies into building trust from day one command greater loyalty from staff, along with high performance and deeper engagement. People who trust their organisations are more likely to spontaneously deliver discretionary effort, above and beyond the call of contractual obligation.

Crucially, trust ought not to be seen in terms of a parent-child model. There is no infantilisation and no arrogant presumption of superiority involved in trust-building. Instead, there is a personal, human and responsive acknowledgement of vulnerability and an ethical and practical commitment to respond positively toward it both in horizontal communications between work colleagues and vertical communications between employees, middle and local managers and senior executives.

Technology has brought innumerable benefits in its wake, but anyone interested in building real trust in their organisations should be deeply wary about the overuse of electronic forms of communication. Broadly speaking, when you’re building trust, emails, Twitter and Facebook are out, face-to-face human conversations and prompt responses to concerns raised are in.

A recent joint study by the Westminster Business School, Top Banana and the Institute of Internal Communication revealed that line managers in particular have a vital role to play in “operationalising” trust, transforming it from an ideal into a real, lived experience. If line managers sincerely and authentically trust the organisation’s senior leaders, they’ll convey that to those who work for them.

Organisations that cultivate a culture of transparency, that articulate and embody a clear set of values supported by genuine managerial commitment, and foster a climate in which staff are expected to communicate with and work collaboratively with line managers on sustaining trust, are the organisations that are actively building genuine trust.

The CIPD advocates actively creating the “space of trust” – patterns and channels of communication that are set up between staff, line managers and senior execs to listen to the concerns and ideas of the people who work for the organisation. Routinely, not simply in response to a crisis or incident.

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