HR Leadership Column Question of Trust

Trust in the foundational institutions of our lives is at an all-time low, according to recent reports. So why should HR executives care about whether workers trust their employers?

Monday, April 10, 2017
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When I was CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, we had all-employee meetings every month, with workers attending either in person or online. During these meetings, we provided a status report on how we were performing, as an organization, against our annual goals. We shared the good and the bad, and shared projections on where we'd be at the end of the year. Our incentive compensation system included all levels of the organization, so how we performed as an organization impacted everyone.

After the update, I'd open it up for questions from the employees.

And every month, one particular employee would raise his hand and ask what was usually a pretty pointed question about the organization's performance. Something he thought was on everyone's mind. I think he wanted to show he wasn't afraid to ask.

I loved it, and I dreaded it.

I loved it because his question usually made others feel safer to ask tough questions, so I had a better chance of correcting the rumor mill or bad information that might be floating around the organization. I dreaded it because, well, what if I didn't have an answer, or I had to give an answer that might prove unpopular?

But we did it, because it was one way to build trust in the organization. It would take the entire organization working together to accomplish our goals, and by being transparent and providing regular updates, employees could trust that there would be no surprises at the end of the year, when we calculated the incentive compensation pay-out.

I thought of this when I read the results of an online survey by Edelman, 2017 Trust Barometer, which involved more than 33,000 respondents in 28 countries.It found that the general population's trust in all four key institutions -- business, government, nongovernment organizations and media -- has declined across every segment, which hadn't  happened since the firm began doing the survey in 2000.

The results also showed that only 37 percent of the general population said CEOs are credible, which was a 12-point decline in just one year. (CEOs should already be very aware of this trend, as PwC's 2016 CEO Survey found that 55 percent of CEOs surveyed were concerned about the lack of trust in business, up from 37 percent three years earlier.)

If there was any good news for the business community in the Edelman survey results, it was that while trust in all segments is falling, trust in business still remained higher than trust in government or media.

But why should we care about whether employees trust their employers? How do you convince skeptical executives that it really does matter?

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review titled "The Neuroscience of Trust," author Paul Zak shares the results of research on the impact of creating a culture of trust:

"Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuels stronger performance."

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In other words, organizations with high levels of trust have a more engaged workforce. And greater engagement has been repeatedly shown to lead to better business outcomes.

What I found interesting in the article was the focus on the actual neuroscience of trust; that when trust is greater, the body produces more oxytocin. Greater amounts of oxytocin is associated with greater relaxation, even more willingness to trust others and general psychological stability. It helps reduce the stress response and general anxiety people feel. All of these benefits are important considerations in building employee engagement.

Zak goes on the share management behaviors that stimulate the production of oxytocin, including providing recognition; setting concrete and achievable goals; giving employees autonomy and job flexibility; sharing information broadly; intentionally build relationships; allowing for personal development and having leaders who are able to show vulnerability.

While I think all of these management behaviors are known tools to experienced HR executives working to increase employee engagement, I'm sure there are many other executives who believe some of these behaviors are too touchy-feely, that they're just HR speak.  

For those skeptical executives, I suggest sharing the data linking higher engagement to better business outcomes, and then inform them of the link between building trust and greater engagement. See if they'll trust the science linking building trust with the production of oxytocin.

After all, if they at least trust science, then they might get a good hit of oxytocin.  

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.


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