The HR Executive's Role in Rebuilding Trust

Organizations that foster trust are more profitable. Yet, trust is complex and hard to earn. There is only one thing that builds trust: the way people behave. To earn and sustain trust, HR leaders must become aware of the behaviors that build and break trust -- and know how to rebuild it again and again.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007
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Trust is built and broken everyday in the workplace.

This is particularly true during change: Trust is challenged and often broken. Change itself does not necessarily break trust. It is how change is managed that causes uncertainty and often leads people to question the intentions of their leaders.

While broken trust causes pain, doubt, and confusion, if people choose to work through broken trust, it may also be used to strengthen relationships, motivate and retain employees.

Our research has shown that nine of every 10 employees experience some kind of breach of trust in the workplace on a regular basis. When trust erodes, morale declines, performance plummets and employees become disengaged and leave. We believe that trust-building behaviors are linked to strategic business results.

In a recent University of British Columbia report, economists found that trust in management is the most valued determinant of job satisfaction. They state that a small increase in trust of management is like getting a 36 percent pay increase. Conversely, the researchers found that if that same amount of trust is lost, the decline in employee job satisfaction is like taking a 36 percent pay cut.

Organizations with trustworthy management do not experience the high cost of turnover. Their employees stay.

Trust makes organizations work. In a trusting environment, employees have more energy, take risks, innovate more frequently, collaborate with co-workers, are responsible, treat customers better and drive business results.

Simply put, organizations that foster trust are more profitable. A Watson Wyatt Worldwide study found that organizations in which front-line employees trusted senior leadership posted a 42 percent higher return on shareholder investment than those firms in which distrust was the norm.

These examples point to the value of a trusting environment and the competitive advantage it yields. Yet, trust is complex and hard to earn. There is only one thing that builds trust: the way people behave. To earn and sustain trust, leaders must become aware of the behaviors that build and break trust -- and know how to rebuild it again and again. (This Trust Quiz may offer some insight into how your behaviors affect trust building in your organization.)

Rebuilding trust requires healing and renewal. A common mistake leaders make during change is to assume that once broken, trust may be re-established on its own, over time. This view is unrealistic, irresponsible and compromises leaders' trustworthiness. The following seven steps guide HR executives by providing a road map for rebuilding and sustaining trust with employees.

1. Observe and acknowledge what has happened.

Start with Awareness. Assess the Health of Your Organization. Notice what people are experiencing and acknowledge it. Pay attention to both the blatant and subtle behaviors that are building and breaking trust. Healing begins when leaders acknowledge what has occurred, the effect on people and the system, and the resulting losses.

For example, a global financial corporation which went through two restructurings over three years experienced the lowest employee-satisfaction survey scores in its history. The human resource executive knew she needed to acknowledge the impact the changes had on employees before they were willing to align with the company's new direction and engage in working towards its goals.

She commissioned her team of HR performance coaches to conduct one-on-one interviews and focus groups in each of the firm's divisions. Their mission: Listen to people's concerns and fears and fully discern the impact of how people experienced the changes. In addition, she had a baseline survey administered to assess the level of trust within each division and the specific behaviors contributing to the low employees' satisfaction scores.

2. Allow feelings to surface.

Give People Permission to Express Their Concerns, Issues, and Feelings in a Constructive Manner. During change, people often feel anxious and vulnerable. They wonder if they have what it takes to be successful in the new environment, questioning themselves as much as their leaders. Create safe forums that allow people to express their fear, anger, frustration and doubts. Doing so helps them begin to let go of the negativity they are holding, freeing up that energy for rebuilding relationships and returning their focus to performance.

In the financial corporation above, the HR coaches facilitated small group meetings where people were encouraged to verbalize the concerns, anxiety and pain they were feeling. The facilitators' role was to listen, observe and acknowledge, not justify or rationalize. This was difficult work, but necessary for rebuilding the employees' trust in the company. If this expression of feelings was not supported, people's feelings would have gone further underground and caused resentment and blocked shared responsibility and accountability.

When in pain, people do not care about the needs of the business until it is clear that the business cares about them, their needs and their well-being.

3. Get support.

Recognize People's Needs. A common mistake leaders, particularly HR executives, make is failing to seek support for themselves and for their employees during challenging times. They get caught up with the assumption that we can manage on our own.

Rebuilding trust is hard work. But something quite powerful occurs when the breach of trust is truthfully acknowledged. Not twisted, justified or defended, but acknowledged. There is a releasing quality when people shift from finger-pointing to seeking to understand; from judgment and criticism to considering extenuating circumstances; from abdication of responsibility to problem solving and taking responsibility; from loss to possibilities.

Leaders and their people can not do this alone. They need support to fully understand what occurred, its effects and the actions necessary to move through the healing process.

A large Midwestern health-care system recently acquired a number of smaller regional hospitals in a merger. Distraught with the changes and distrustful of the new leadership, many of the employees from the acquired hospitals were leaving the system.

The vice president of human resources of the acquiring company engaged his team of organizational development internal consultants to develop a strategy to build trust within the new organization. Part of the plan was providing support to the leaders of each acquired regional hospital. The consultants helped the unit leaders make a shift from blaming the acquiring company to taking responsibility for the situation. Most importantly, the consultants helped them see the rebuilding possibilities.

4. Reframe the experience.

Put the Experience into a Larger Context. People are supported to reframe their experience when they are encouraged to look at the bigger picture, reflect on extenuating circumstances, notice the business reasons for change and explore opportunities that changes present.

Engage in Inquiry. Healing is a process of inquiry and occurs when people are provided with an opportunity to have their questions answered. Responding to questions honestly gives people an awareness and understanding of the bigger picture leading to renewed hope for trusting relationships and their place in the organization.

Because of the changes occurring in the hospital system, the HR executive saw that employees were feeling vulnerable and "at the mercy" of the forces of change. With support from the organizational-development consultants, the HR executive met with regional hospitals' employees, answered questions and openly discussed the impact that changes had on employees.

Employees shared their feelings of vulnerability. Speaking candidly with the employees, the HR executive, with his consultants, was able to help employees shift from blaming the leaders and the organization to realizing they had choices. They helped employees see that while they may have no control over what occurred, they do have control over how they choose to respond.

5. Take responsibility.

Take Responsibility for Your Role. It is not helpful to spin the truth or to cover up mistakes. People see right through it and trust is further diminished. Taking responsibility means acknowledging mistakes or oversights. Telling the truth, without justification and rationalization, demonstrates a leader's trustworthiness and exposes vulnerability. Doing so makes it safe for others to expose their vulnerability, seek support and take responsibility for their behaviors. Sometimes three simple words, "I am sorry," reflect taking responsibility -- and they go a long way to rebuilding trust.

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A Northeastern manufacturing firm was downsizing its Vermont plant, laying off 25 percent of its workforce --with many of the job functions being outsourced offshore. Employees were angry, in pain and blaming their leaders, as well behaving in ways that further contributed to problems, such as attempting to shut down production lines and sabotage the company data system.

The HR executive realized she needed to support her company's leadership in acknowledging their role in the changes and the impact those changes were having on employees.

She convened a series of town meetings for the CEO to speak to the employees of each of department. The CEO spoke openly and honestly and answered tough questions from the employees during each meeting. His candor eased the employees' anxiety and fear.

The CEO acknowledged without justification the impact the changes had on employees. This action helped their employees take responsibility for their behavior. Even though employees may have felt betrayed, it did not justify them betraying in return.

Trust begets trust and betrayal begets betrayal. The more people are aware of their actions being a choice, the more able they are to take responsibility for their behaviors and the results generated.

6. Forgive yourself and others.

Recognize That Forgiveness Is Freedom. Anger, bitterness and resentment deplete people's energy and interfere with relationships and performance. They undermine morale, productivity, innovation and engagement, and erode trust. Leaders can help cultivate a healing, trustworthy environment where forgiveness takes place. By helping people forgive, they help them open up possibilities for the future by changing their attitudes about the past.

For most people, forgiveness takes time, and happens gradually. Over time employees may be willing to forgive, but they can not be expected to forget. Leaders can help their people heal from the pain they felt, but they cannot erase the events of the past.

The CEO of the manufacturing firm helped employees shift from blaming the leadership and the organization to focusing on their individual needs and roles, and the needs of the business. To do so, the CEO asked employees what was needed to resolve issues, concerns, fears and pain. The leader had conversations that needed to occur and listened for what needed to be said.

7. Let go and move on.

Accept What Is So. Acceptance is not condoning what was done but experiencing the reality of what happened without blame. People accept what is so when they separate themselves from their preoccupation with the past and invest their emotional energies in creating a different future.

Take the Time and Make the Commitment. When trust is lost, it is regained only by a sincere dedication to the key behaviors and practices that earned it in the first place. The journey back to trusting is not an easy one. However, by listening, telling the truth, giving the benefit of the doubt, seeking to understand and practicing trust-building behaviors, people will find their way.

Nine months after the trust-rebuilding process began in the above global financial services corporation, the employee-satisfaction survey was re-administered companywide. Employee satisfaction had increased an unprecedented 25 percent -- the highest single increase in the company's history.

Leadership felt relieved and vindicated. Lines of communication had opened up between leadership and employees, and greater collaboration was taking place between people and departments in accomplishing the corporation's goals.

While not easy, rebuilding trust is essential. The cost of not doing so is too high to be ignored. By being self-aware and choosing to practice trust-building behaviors, HR executives can play an instrumental role in supporting employees to heal from betrayal, to rebuild and sustain trust, and to renew relationships.

Dennis S. Reina and Michelle L. Reina are co-authors of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization, 1999, 2nd edition, 2006. (Berrett-Koehler), and co-founders of The Reina Trust Building Institute, dedicated to the research and practice of trust building with leaders and their organizations for over 15 years. Their mission: live, build, and teach models of trust, healing, and renewal to support community in service to the world. Together and independently, they are internationally sought-after consultants, keynote speakers, and executive coaches. They can be reached at (802) 253-8808 or

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